By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – This season, the Saginaw Heritage girls basketball team had, as junior Shine Strickland-Gills called it, an “epiphany.”
And it’s made the difference between another 20-win season and getting a chance to play for the Class A championship.
Expectations have been high the last few seasons for a Hawks group that’s shown plenty of ability against big-time opponents, but never put it entirely together for an MHSAA Tournament run.
After Friday’s 46-28 Semifinal win over Grosse Pointe North, Heritage finds itself one more victory from making good on all of that potential.
“It was a disappointment (last year) because we lost in second round Districts, and we were supposed to win,” Strickland-Gills said. “We didn’t because we really didn’t come out hard, and I feel like we’ve done what we’re supposed to do. We’ve actually listened and taken heed of what (coach Vonnie DeLong) has told us. And we’ve actually applied it in a game, and it really works.
“We had an epiphany.”
Heritage will face East Lansing in Saturday’s 12:15 championship game at Calvin College’s Van Noord Arena.
A Class A title would be the Hawks’ first since 2002 and cap a fourth straight season with at least 20 wins – but after Heritage was eliminated during the first week of the tournament a year ago.
All but four of the team’s points Friday were scored by four players with lots of experience, but who also had experienced last season’s disappointment.
Junior Mallory McCartney had 13 points, while Strickland-Gills added 12, seven rebounds and four steals. Senior Jessica Bicknell had eight points and three steals, and junior Moira Joiner had nine points, five rebounds and three steals.
Joiner scored six points below her average and had only a point during the first half. But she also defended Grosse Pointe North star junior Julia Ayrault –holding her to 13 points, six below her average as well.
“My (coaches) go a great job scouting and really let us know what we have to do,” Joiner said. “For me, if I’m guarding the best player, I need to look at film and know what their tendencies are. Like Julia, she likes to drive and pull up, or she’ll shoot the long 3 so I have to get my hands up. It’s just a lot of paying attention.
“It was pretty obvious today; I didn’t have the best game I could have. But I knew if I could keep Julia to a certain amount of points, then my team could pick it up on the offensive end.”
Despite shooting only 38 percent from the floor over the first 16 minutes, Heritage (26-1) led by three after a quarter and nine at halftime. The Hawks kicked into gear during a 17-6 third quarter run as they drilled 57 percent of their shots and pulled away.
The 6-foot-2 Ayrault, who already has committed to sign with Michigan State, had nine rebounds and four blocks to go with her 13 points. But North (20-6) couldn’t recover from 23 turnovers, and as a team put up 18 fewer shots than the Hawks.
The 28 points were a season low by 13, but the experience should prove valuable for a team graduating only one senior.
“This whole season has been pretty much a gift to us. When we started, I didn’t think we were a very good basketball team,” said North coach Gary Bennett, who completed his 35th season. “Some time in January, things started to click a little bit and we started to become a better basketball team. And I mean a team in the truest sense of the word – we have a superstar and we’ve got role players, and the role player know they need the superstar and the superstar knows she needs the role players. And that’s kinda been our season.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Saginaw Heritage’s Madison Camp, left and Mallory McCartney provide a pair of obstacles between Grosse Pointe North and the basket Friday. (Middle) Heritage’s Moira Joiner defends North’s Julia Ayrault.