By Chad Wingert
MERRILL — Everything good must come to an end.
But in the case of Reese’s girls basketball team, that something great, that something special, came to an end a little too soon Tuesday night following their 47-45 Class C Regional semifinal loss to Saginaw Nouvel.
After trailing the Panthers by nine at the end of the third quarter, the Rockets found themselves down by just two points with under a minute to play. With the chance to put Reese away for good, Nouvel missed try after try from the free-throw line over the final eight minutes, including five straight late in the contest. The Rockets just couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities.
The Panthers finished the game 3-for-14 from the stripe.
“We were trying to give it away. Thank God for our defense and rebounding,” said Saginaw Nouvel head coach Kris Hengesbach. “We also did a nice job of executing on our end in drawing the foul. It’s just a matter of finishing the game but, we got the ‘W’ and we are moving on.”
Down 46-43 with 38 seconds left in the game, Reese junior Monica Hagen threw up a three-pointer that was nearly halfway through the cylinder, but the shot didn’t fall for the Rockets.
“I thought Hagen’s shot was down. That would have been a big shot. I thought it was in. It was a good look,” said Reese head coach Denny Gruber. “We had our chances. We had a good shot, it just didn’t fall. I was hoping we could score earlier there with about 32 seconds and then call timeout, but we didn’t.”
As the saying goes, the regular season gets thrown out the window when it comes to postseason play.
After suffering a ten-point loss to Reese earlier this season, Nouvel didn’t need any added motivation to keep their season alive. But a quick reminder of that loss before their second meeting with the Rockets sure did help.
“That loss was a huge motivation factor for us and, on this stage when the game really counts and matters, these girls showed a lot of mental toughness, poise and that will to win,” said Hengesbach. “They (Reese) are a great team. We just got the breaks at the end.”
Reese point guard Paige Gotham gave the Rockets a 5-2 lead at the four minute mark of the first quarter. But after that big bucket from the junior, Reese played from behind for the remainder of the night.
A swarming Nouvel defense brought out a Rocket squad that hasn’t been seen all season. Turnovers on the offensive end and a defensive struggle to slow the Panthers down put Reese down by as many as seven in the second frame. But still, the Rockets found a way to go into the break trailing by just two points.
Reese kept their full-court press on through the third quarter with hopes it would give them the upper hand, but the opposite happened. Nouvel countered with a zone defense that put the Rockets in a 40-31 hole after three quarters of play.
“We did a good job of pressuring the ball and trying to make things happen. We still wanted to see if we could get those easy ones,” said Gruber. “We got a little something out of it, but you always hope that when you are down that you can come up with that big steal.”
Drawing two and even three defenders at times, the Rockets also struggled to get sophomore Reyna Frost into the flow of the game.
Still, Frost finished the night with a team-high 15 points, nine of which came from the free-throw line. She also had 17 rebounds, three steals, three assists and three blocks in the loss.
“We tried to work our inside-outside game and it took Reyna a little bit to get going. They did a nice job on her tonight. That was a quiet 15 points,” said Gruber. “When she drew extra defenders, we knew we had to burn them on those open shots, but they weren’t falling.”
Even though this was Reese’s first time on the Regional stage since 1975, Gruber said that his squad didn’t shy away from trying to take the Panthers down for a second time this season. Even though the Rockets are a young squad, inexperience is inexcusable.
“We played all summer against teams just as good as Nouvel or even better. I wasn’t worried about inexperience,” said Gruber. “The amount of turnovers was a little uncharacteristic of us. I kept preaching ball possession and getting the most out of our possessions. But, they had theirs too.”
Alongside Frost’s solid game, Drew Findlay totaled 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists for Reese (23-1) while Hagen finished with 10 points. Paige Gotham tallied five points and six assists.
Nouvel was led by Rachel McInerney’s game-high 16 points while Taylor Hengesbach added 12. Nicole Buckingham tallied eight in the win.
It wasn’t easy, but Gruber’s message following the loss was a simple one. Despite the loss, Gruber’s squad was going to go down as the best in school history. Sure, seniors Theresa Pickell, Amy Hecht, Phoebe Beyerlein and Findlay will be missed, but the Rockets ride at the top is far from over.
“There aren’t too many teams that can say in two years, they’ve lost two games. We’ve played some good teams. Through it all, they can’t let what we accomplished this year diminish after one game. They accomplished a great deal,” Gruber said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of girls who would love to be in their position. I told them that they can’t let this loss diminish the great year that we had.”
Chad Wingert is the Sports Editor of the Advertiser and can be reached at Sports@tcadvertiser.com