By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – She needed about a month. But by the end of last April, Nastassja Chambers got over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep’s loss in the 2015 Class C Semifinals.
This weekend, she and her teammates are one step closer to avoiding disappointment – and then some.
The Gators set themselves up for a first championship in school history Thursday by returning to the Semifinals and downing Ithaca 72-44 at the Breslin Center.
Arbor Prep learned its share of lessons from last season’s four-point loss to eventual runner-up Flint Hamady. And they played all season to earn Saturday’s opportunity to face Traverse City St. Francis for the Class C title.
“That motivated us a lot. We’ve been talking about it all year,” Chambers said of the Hamady loss. “Every game we scheduled this year was to prepare us for now. So we made the schedule even harder than last year so we’d be ready this year. (And) we’ve been here before, so we’re not that nervous.”
Top-ranked Arbor Prep did play, arguably, the toughest schedule of any team in Class C this season. The Gators (23-2) beat two top-five teams in Class B and filled the schedule with larger schools including the reigning champions in Class B and Class A.
After a first quarter Thursday played nearly to a draw – Arbor Prep led at the end by one, 16-15 – the Gators unleashed what they’d learned over the last 12 months and a lot of what they’ve become known for over the last few seasons.
Arbor Prep outscored Ithaca 50-15 over the second and third quarters, taking advantage of 20 turnovers over those 16 minutes by scoring 30 points off those takeaways.
“That’s our style of play,” Chambers said. “We get the ball up the court, push it and run. We do good on the 3-on-2 fastbreak, the 2-on-1 fastbreak – that’s our bread and butter.”
Ithaca also suffered an unfortunate loss during the second quarter that surely affected ball security when senior point guard Brooklyn Dolloff was sidelined with a painful sprained ankle.
She had totaled four points – making both of her shots – two rebounds and an assist in her seven minutes, numbers that would’ve translated well over an entire game. Her absence also forced Ithaca – playing in its first Semifinal after also winning its first Regional title – to shift players into less familiar positions and roles.
“It was very upsetting. My coach even said, when it first happened, that I was more upset that I was going to be out than (because of) the pain,” said Dolloff, a three-year varsity player. “I really wanted to be there for my team.”
Arbor Prep, meanwhile, hit its stride. Although Ithaca made 50 percent of its shots for the game, it got off only 34 – half as many as the Gators.
Arbor Prep coach Rod Wells said his team focused on shooting this winter after making only 33 percent of its attempts from the floor during the 2015 Semifinal. This time, the Gators made 42 percent in addition to cutting their turnovers from 12 last season to seven.
“Energy, anticipation and just playing together. The ladies trust each other now,” Wells said. “We’ve been talking about trust all year. When you put pressure on the ball you can feel like you’re on an island. But the ladies understand that someone’s got your back.
“They remember the pain last year. I remember waking up Saturday morning and I didn’t know what to do. That feeling, they were feeling the same way. We just put it into our practices. Every time they ran a sprint or something, and didn’t reach our goal, we talked about it. Our goal was to get to Breslin, but not just get here – we’ve seen how it looks. But to win it.”
Chambers had 24 points, six assists and seven steals, making 10 of her 15 shots from the floor. Junior guard Ro’zhane Wells added 11 points, and junior guard Adrienne Anderson had 10 points, four steals and three assists.
Sophomore center Kayla Belles had 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists to lead the Yellowjackets (24-3), and junior center Maddie Brock added 11 points.
Ithaca entered the postseason ranked No. 7 and had its best season despite finishing only 5-16 three years ago, and then losing coach Bob Anderson midseason this winter when he retired due to health issues.
“We talked about it in the locker room; we said this feeling is not a good feeling. It kinda stinks,” said Ithaca coach Jessie Rayburn, who took over for Anderson after assisting him prior to his departure. “However, all the feelings leading up to it were pretty cool. And our community is awesome.”
Click for the full box score.
The Girls Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) Arbor Prep’s Cydney Williams pushes the ball upcourt during Thursday’s Class C Semifinal. (Middle) The Gators’ Kayla Knight (24) and Ithaca’s Kayla Belles grab for the opening jump.