By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Micaela Kelly was a big fan of the Detroit Martin Luther King football team in November when it won its first MHSAA championship since 2007.
Now she and her teammates are receiving that support in return as they pursue a first Class A title since 2006.
The Crusaders earned the opportunity for the first time since that championship season with a 56-48 Semifinal win over St. Johns on Friday at the Breslin Center.
King will next face Warren Cousino in the noon Final on Saturday seeking a sixth MHSAA championship – but first in nine seasons.
“It’s my last year of high school and I’ll never get this chance again. And I want to go to college with something,” said Kelly, who will continue her career next season at DePaul University. “(The football players) talk to me all day. They said, ‘We’ve got one. You should get one too.’ I look up to them; they worked hard.”
King (24-1) entered this postseason ranked No. 4 and always is in the conversation of the state’s elite. The Crusaders have made Quarterfinals four of the past five seasons and advanced to the Semifinals a year ago before falling to eventual Class A champion Bloomfield Hills Marian.
But they looked tough to beat Friday.
Kelly said because she’d never played St. Johns, she hoped her team would get off to a quick start – and she played a big part, making two 3-pointers as junior Tia Tedford drilled a third to give the Crusaders a quick 9-6 lead after their first three shots from the floor.
King ended up making half of its 3-pointers – nine total, and kept a 7 to 10-point lead most of the third and fourth quarters until St. Johns made a last run late to get as close as six during the final minute.
The Redwings had defeated three other top-10 teams during the tournament run and another twice during the regular season.
“We’ve played a lot of different styles, but King was a little different in the fact they shot really well from the perimeter consistently,” St. Johns coach Mark Lasceski said. “And shots that normally went in for us the past three weeks went off the front of the rim, rattling out, those types of things. In a game like this against a top-10 team like that, they have to go down for you to have a chance to win.”
Kelly led King with 18 points, hitting 5 of 7 shots from the floor including a pair of 3-pointers. Junior guard Alicia Norman made all three of her 3-point attempts and finished with 14 points, and sophomore guard Erica Whitley-Jackson also made three 3-pointers and finished with 10 points.
“If you’re a 3-point shooting team, you’re always going to have those highs and those lows. We always expect that, and hopefully our defense would hold up until we started hitting again,” 33-year King coach William Winfield said. “We wanted to make sure they were taking good shots, and that was the difference. They played with poise, very sure of themselves.”
St. Johns – playing in its first Semifinal since 1997 – got offensive contributions from a number of players. Sophomore guard Maddie Maloney led with 12 points and six assists, but five others scored at least five points.
Junior forward Jamie Carroll and junior guard Erika Ballinger each added eight. Senior Brooke Mazzolini had seven points, six rebounds and six assists, and with forward Jessica Hafner was one of only two seniors on the team.
“I felt we had a chance to win all game long,” said Lasceski, who completed his 20th season leading the program. “They hit shots, and we struggled at times.
“These kids … made this an outstanding season, for the St. Johns community, for the basketball program and for them. … Through this run, they grew together, as I would say, family. They’ve been one of the closest group of kids that I’ve coached.”
Click for the full box score.
The Girls Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Martin Luther King’s Alicia Norman drives past a St. Johns defender Friday. (Middle) St. Johns’ Jessica Hafner looks for an open teammate as Jasmine Flowers (55) and Micaela Kelly defend.