By ROBERT YOUNGS, JR.
Special to The Daily News
EAST LANSING – Lexi Gussert sat for four minutes, 47 seconds. It was the most she sat all season.
Trailing, 33-32, Gussert and her Trojan teammates took the floor for the fourth and didn’t give an inch, outscoring Athens, 17-0, to close out a see-saw 49-33 MHSAA Class D basketball semifinal before 1,578 fans Thursday at the Breslin Student Events Center on the campus of Michigan State University.
Gussert played the final nine minutes 31 seconds with four fouls. She scored nine of her game-high 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously being a leader, you don’t want to be sitting on the bench in the semifinal game,” Gussert said. “But I knew I had be there for my team. That’s the most I’ve sat all year, so I was a little pumped up.”
Forest Park’s rotation has included nine or 10 players most of this season, and they had the experience of beating Iron Mountain 74-39 midseason without Gussert, who missed because she was ill. Generally that depth has allowed the Trojans to wear opponents down. This time it allowed them to hang on – while also turning up the pressure enough to hold Athens scoreless during the fourth quarter.
“The girls are comfortable with it, and I’m glad we have that experience. We have the best player in the state on our team, but we have a whole lot of other good players (too),” Forest Park coach Jeff Syrjanen said. “I trust my team enough that I have faith in all of them. I just didn’t think they would crack. We don’t change what we do; we just don’t do it as well without Lexi on the floor with us.”
Sophomore guard Maria Stankewicz did the main filling in on the offensive end, finishing with 10 points and five assists. Senior center Kendra Campbell added eight points and freshman guard Abby Nylund had six points and seven rebounds.
Stankewicz also played the role of yeller at Gussert to not foul when Athens got out on a few fast breaks headed her way.
“It was a lot different because I wasn’t used to it. But overall it wasn’t just me,” Stankewicz said. “I tried to take charge, tried to be a leader when she stepped off. But our posts played tougher and my other guard played tougher. We really were a team together.”
“We knew that they would come in here and give us a real scrappy game,” said Forest Park head coach Jeff Syrjanen. “We felt, coming into the game, if we could sustain their pressure and get through their press, that we had a good chance.”
After starting the game with a 9-0 run that included baskets by Kendra Campbell, Maria Stankewicz, and a three-pointer by Gussert, things changed rapidly as Athens got itself together and started to play. Forest Park took the first quarter, 14-6, but, by then, the Indians’s rally was well in gear.
Jenny Smittendorf and Audrey Oswalt got the Indians (22-4) back within five at 16-11 and then an Indya Stevens lay-in finally tied things at 23-23 with 58 seconds remaining in the first. By that time, Gussert had been sitting with three fouls for 2:48, and things looked very uncertain.
Undaunted, after the Trojans outscored Athens 9-8 in the third quarter, they finally got down to business.
Gussert, signed to play at Michigan State, hit a shot in the paint at 6:38, then sank a three-pointer just two seconds shy of a minute later. Free throws by Gussert and Stankewicz put the Trojans ahead at 40-33 with 3:27 to go.
Forest Park (26-0) subsequently buried the game out of reach.
Consecutive baskets by junior Sierra Robarge, including a big three, forced an Athens timeout one minute and nine seconds later with the Trojans leading 45-33.
“I knew we needed to put it away, I knew we needed to get this win,” Robarge said.
Stankewicz and Gussert iced it with two free throws apiece to end the scoring at 49-33.
“When they had a couple of fast breaks, I could hear my guard, Maria, yell, ‘Don’t foul! Don’t foul!'” Gussert said. “I like to go for the blocks, but I knew I had to be really safe.
“They did a good job of getting the fouls [against us]. It was tough, but we pulled through.”
There weren’t many changes to the Trojans’ game plan, but Syrjanen did admit to at least one change.
“One of the changes we did make is that we moved Lexi up to to the top on the 2-3 zone, which we haven’t done before,” he said.
Almost prophetically, after playing the whole night in foul trouble and seated for as long as she was, the ball was in Gussert’s hands when time expired on the Trojans’ win.
“As a senior leader, you’ve got to take charge,” Gussert said. “Everyone just played so well tonight. I felt really comfortable when they came at me.
“That’s how we’ve gotten so far this year, is trusting each other.”
Gussert’s future coach, Suzy Merchant, and a few of her future teammates were on hand to witness the victory. They all get another chance 9 a.m. (Central) Saturday as Forest Park takes on Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in the Class D state championship.
“It’s great support, that’s awesome,” said Gussert of her future Spartan teammates.
“We take every game we’ve played all year like it’s a tough opponent and we try to prepare for them the best we can,” Syrjanen said. “Our goal was to be here and get into this next game.”
Saturday’s final will air live on Fox Sports Detroit.
Saturday’s championship will also air live on a local radio station. Fans can take advantage of coverage through the MHSAA, with free audio streaming available on MHSAANetwork.com.
“It’s been our goal as a team to play 27 games, and we’re going to play 27 games,” Forest Park assistant coach Jackie Giuliani said.
(Sports Editor Ron Deuter and MHSAA Second Half Editor Geoff Kimmerly contributed to this report)
Athens 6 19 8 0 – 33
Forest Park 14 9 9 17 – 49
ATHENS: J. Smittendorf 3, Beal 4, Oswalt 15, A. Fuller 8, Stevens 2, Hurst 1. FT: 10-19. F: 19.
FP: Stankewicz 10, Campbell 8, Robarge 5, Gussert 20, S. Nylund 6. FT: 11-19. F: 16.
FGs – A: 11-47 (3-pt: 1-14); FP: 17-50 (3-pt: 4-16). 3-pt FGs – A: A. Fuller; FP: Stankewicz, Robarge, Gussert (2). Reb – A: 37 (Oswalt 12); FP: 37 (Gussert 11).