Something was different about the Michigan Center girl’s basketball team.
From the opening tip in the Class C District Championship game against Concord on Friday night, the Lady Cardinals played with a fight and passion they looked for all season. Center jumped out to an 8-0 lead, forced five early turnovers, led 9-4 after one quarter and never looked back. The resurgent Cards withstood a late Yellow Jacket push before holding on for a 41-36 title win in front of a crowded house at Concord High School.
“To win this game the way we did, especially after losing in three overtimes to Concord last year, really says amazing things about the girls on this team,” Center coach Joe Lusk said after the game. “It got a little tight there at the end and we sort of backed off a little bit. I’m not sure why. And we don’t usually miss free throws like that, but we got it done.”
The win was even more emotional for the entire Michigan Center community, which was stunned by the sudden passing of former Lady Cardinals coach Scot Furman in May of 2012.
“I told the girls after the game that we had an angel looking down on us tonight,” Lusk said. “It took us a while to find ourselves at the beginning of the year and we struggled a bit, but lately we’ve started to really put it all together.”
About an impending regional matchup against Manchester, Lusk could only smile.
“They thumped us pretty good a couple times this year,” he said. “We’ll see if the third time’s the charm.”
With a raucous cheering section urging them on, the Lady Cards led 23-9 at halftime and 33-20 heading into the fourth quarter behind the leadership of senior Maegan Branham (8 points) and super sophomore Sophia Prokos (12 points, 4 rebounds). But it was the bulldog-style play of sophomore Emily Powers that may have mattered most, especially at the end.
Powers (10 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals) converted a three point play with 44 seconds left in regulation that weathered the storm for the Cardinals after Concord had clawed back to make it a 35-34 game.
With the crowd going bonkers, Powers calmly stepped to the line and made the free throw, which was better than what really was on her mind. Before stepping up to the stripe, she told a teammate she thought she was going to throw up.
“I’m speechless,” she said after the game. “I thought I was maybe going to throw up before that free throw, and I knew that wouldn’t be good.”
The three-point play made it a two possession ballgame, and Concord’s fate was sealed.
“This was a total team effort,” Branham said. “Things got crazy at the end, but we sort of knew it would. We just had to close it out.”
And close it out the Cardinals (15-8) did when Prokos hit a pair of free throws with 26 seconds left to finish it. Kristin Montecinos added 7 points and 4 rebounds for Center.
For Concord, who struggled with slow starts most of the season, the defeat didn’t just end the season, but indeed an era.
A magnificent core group of seniors (44-5 as a whole) played their last game as Yellow Jackets – a group that grew up playing together, won two Big Eight Conference Championships and reached the Final Four last year at the Breslin Center after an undefeated regular season.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Maycee and Andrea Brigham each fouled out with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game. Concord coach Jeff Redmond left the two on the court for as long as possible after their fifth fouls, letting them soak up the applause and the atmosphere for the final time in purple and gold. Maycee Brigham (11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals) whose late baskets almost allowed Concord to steal this one at the end, shook her head sadly but said nothing as she left the court.
And her silence said it all.
When it was over, the Lady Jackets sat quietly on the bench and watched the Cardinals and their fans swarm center court. It was something Concord had done together so many times.
For the Michigan Center Lady Cardinals, with a district championship trophy in hand, it wasn’t time to be silent. There were shouts and hugs, tears and screams, handshakes and high-fives.
And a lot of reflection…
Because somewhere Coach Scot Furman was watching this one – watching his Lady Cardinals, his friends and his community – and enjoying this precious moment.
Well done, Michigan Center – well done.