This time, the Hornets would not be denied.
Saline battled back from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter to defeat Huron, 50-44, and win the Hornets' first MHSAA District Championship since 2013.
The Hornets (21-2) advance to the regional tournament and will play against Wayne Memorial (19-4). The game is at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday at Dexter.
The Hornets, who came so close to the winning the district last year at Pioneer, would not be denied Friday at Lincoln High School.
“It’s surreal. It hasn’t even set in. But it feels so good,” said junior Ella Stemmer. “We’ve been pursuing this for so long. We knew coming in that we were not leaving here without a district championship. To know that we did it together is a great feeling.:
Senior Steffi Bentley agreed.
“I still can’t believe it,” Bentley said. “This is what we wanted. This is what we worked for all season. It’s just amazing to finally have it.”
A proud coach could think of no better way to mark the championship than to watch her team celebrate.
“The moment the buzzer sounded, I took a step back and watched those kids run towards each other with that joy on their faces and I was overwhelmed with emotion,” coach Leigh Ann Roehm said. “It was an earned moment. It was a moment they were purposeful about - setting the goal. They were purposeful about doing the work to achieve it. And I am so proud of the commitment and the work that let them feel this moment.”
It was a game remarkable and unsurprising all at once.
Saline (21-2, ranked seventh in Division 1) and Huron (19-4, ranked 1st in Division 1) had split their two previous games, with each team winning each other’s gym.
So you knew this was going to be a tough, physical game. Even so, the ferociousness displayed during some of the battles was impressive.
“Huron played tough D. They made it tough for us on every single possession,” Roehm said. “It was a physical game with a lot of talented players, with great athleticism and great strength. I thought it was just great for women’s basketball, just watching these strong women battle against each other.
And despite the defensive grind of the first half, the runs both teams had in the third quarter, and the intensity displayed by both teams in the fourth quarter - the game had a very familiar narrative for Saline. Ella Stemmer and Steffie Bentley paced the offense. Liz Sekerak played great defense and hit a couple huge shots. And Amera Boyd just outran, outjumped and outbattled anyone she played against.
Saline raced out to a 5-0 lead in the opening minutes thanks to Steffi Bentley. She went 1 of 2 from the line, then made a hook shot to make it 3-0 and then took a pass from Ella Stemmer to make it 5-0. Huron battled back and tied at 5 after a three from Siena Smith. The River Rat defense suddenly seemed impenetrable. Huron took a 7-5 lead into the second half
“Huron played us so tough. I feel like that’s the best defense that we’ve ever played against,” Bentley said.
Stemmer came out on a mission in the second quarter - but still, the River Rats stuck to their formation. Stemmer opened the scoring with a layup to tie the game. But Huron replied with two baskets. Stemmer hit one of two shots from the line and then hit a three to tie the game at 11.
But Huron went back ahead, 14-11, after a three by McKenzie Maciejewski. Down 15-11, Stemmer got the Hornets to with two points on a layup that capped a good drive in from the arc.
But the River Rats lurched ahead 18-13
Late in the half, after a point from the stripe by Bentley, Natalie Sweetland finished off a pretty passing play from Bentley and scored to get Saline within two, at 18-16,
The second half began with Bentley tying the game on a layup. After a basket by Jadyn Smith, Stemmer knocked down two shots from the line to tie the game at 20.
Then it looked like the game might slip away from the Hornets. The River Rats went on a seven-point run, highlighted by a three-point basket by Siena Smith, to take a 27-20 lead. Coach Roehm called timeout to settle the team. But when play resumed the Hornets coughed up the ball and Reeya Patel scored on an uncontested layup to make it 29-20.
“We could have buckled when we got down nine. But we didn’t. And I think that just says so much about these kids and how much they believe in ourselves and our team,” Roehm said.
Then the Hornets started climbing back into the contest. Bentley kickstarted a 12-point run with a beautiful eight-foot hook shot. 30 seconds later, she scored again with a bank shot. Bentley kept the run going with another layup to get Saline within three at 29-36 with 3:10 to play in the third.
“Steffi just made tough shots with great moves. She had a will in her eyes,” Roehm said.
Then when Liz Sekerak made her mark.
She hit a three to the game at 29. Then, after the River Rats missed a couple free throws at the other end, the Hornets raced up the floor and Sekerak hit another - off the glass and in. Saline led 32-29.
“Big Shot Liz. In every single big game we’ve played, Liz has made back-to-back three-pointers in the third or fourth quarter,” Roehm said. “She comes through in the clutch.”
For Sekerak, it was a moment she’ll never forget.
“I will always remember that. When I did that, I got the chills, so I was really excited,” Sekerak said. “I think that was a big turning point because we’d been down for so long and all of the sudden we were up.”
It was lead they never released - though they had no way of knowing it.
After a basket by Huron’s Alexa Lyon, Bentley finished the third quarter with a layup. Saline led 34-31.
Stemmer delivered an early blow in the fourth with a three-pointer to make it 37-31.
After a Huron basket, Sweetland got a point from the free-throw line. But Huron got that back and more when Lyon made her shot plus a foul point. The River Rats were within two, at 38-36.
Amera Boyd, who’d made her presence felt all night with fast, physical and fearless play, chipped into the offensive effort with a finger-roll layup. Lyon replied with two free throws to once again get the River Rats within two.
With 3:10 to play, the Hornets delivered another blow. With bodies falling to the ground, Bentley somehow came out of a pile with the ball and passed back to Stemmer at the top of the key. She swished her jump shot for three points. Saline led 43-38.
Lyon replied with a basket.
Stemmer got those two points making both ends of a one-and-one. Boyd then went 1-for-2 to make it 46-40 with a minute to play.
It seemed like the game was in Saline’s control. But a couple of strange calls helped Huron get the ball back. First, on one play, one official called for a foul on a River Rat and another called for a jump ball. The officials conversed and awarded Huron the possession on a jump ball. Huron got a point from Lyons at the free-throw line to make it a five-point game.
Then one of the officials drew the ire of the Hornets by calling Stemmer for a charge when everyone in the gym expected the River Rats to foul and force the Hornets to the line with 38 seconds left. The River Rats Maciejewski hit a three-pointer with 24 seconds left. Saline led 46-44.
The Hornets, who had three possessions in less than two minutes turned around on strange calls, came back up the floor again. This time, the River Rats fouled Sophie Canen. The sophomore stepped to the line for one-and-one and hit both.
“It was a one-and-one. If she doesn’t make that first shot, it’s a one-possession game and with the talent that Huron has, shooting wise, you leave that door open for them, you know they’re going to capitalize,” Roehm said. “Those two free throws were so huge. She just looked like she had ice in her veins.”
Saline led 48-44 with 19 seconds left. Stemmer and Bentley made free throws down in the final 10 seconds to make it 50-44.
Beating Huron only made the victory sweeter.
“It felt great. We’ve been working for this for a long time,” said Sekerak, a senior in her third year on varsity. “It came against Huron, one of our biggest rivals. So to beat them to become district champs meant a lot to us.”
“It feels amazing. We worked really hard for this. So to have that paid off is amazing,” Boyd said.
Coach Roehm becomes the third coach in her family to win a district trophy. Her mother won a title for Posen High School. Her father won for Kalkaska. Despite Roehm’s stellar high school career, she’d never won as a player, so it was a first for her.
It was Saline’s first district championship since 2013. Assistant coach Caitlin Ellis was a star senior on that squad. Coach Jason Pickett coached the Hornets to a district title in 2010.
Saline’s 21st win of the season appears to tie a Hornet record. Saline was 21-3 in 2002.
The Saline Post 3 Stars:
- Steffi Bentley - Scored 17 points and had seven rebounds, two blocks and two assists. Bentley was a tower of strength in the third quarter as the Hornets mounted their comeback.
- Ella Stemmer - Scored 19 points and had five rebounds, three steals and three assists. Stemmer was the focal point of the River Rats defense, but they couldn’t stop her.
- Liz Sererak and Amera Boyd - They didn’t score a ton. But the played fiercely all night. Sekerak’s two threes capped the comeback and put Saline ahead for good. The River Rats had no answer for Boyds’ tenacity.