Big Rapids beats undefeated Central Montcalm 49-34 in district semifinal action

    Big Rapids’ Kaitlyn Ray (20) looks to make a play while defended by Central Montcalm’s Libby Ledford. (Pioneer photo/Maxwell Harden)

BIG RAPIDS — As the old saying goes, “Third time’s a charm.”

That saying rang true on Wednesday night as the Big Rapids girls basketball team beat undefeated Central Montcalm 49-34 in the Class B district semifinal game in front of an electric crowd at Big Rapids High.

The Hornets (20-1), who finished the regular season 20-0 to earn a unanimous CSAA Gold title, were ranked No. 6 in the latest Class B AP poll. They bested Big Rapids 48-39 on Jan. 12 and 45-38 on Feb. 16.

“I’m just proud of my kids,” head coach Jessica Haist said. “They just gutted it out. I thought we played hard an executed. It’s hard when you play somebody so many times to think of something different that they wouldn’t expect.

“I think they did a great job.”

Jayla Strickland led the way with 18 points and 12 rebounds and Kaitlyn Ray had seven points and 10 rebounds, while Savannah Seath and Leah Morningstar tallied 12 and 10 points, respectively.

“Jayla knew the game was going to be physical,” Haist said. “So to fight through that and still be positive was huge. Kaitlyn is the ultimate competitor. She’s so stoic out there and came off the court sobbing at the end. You could see how much this means to her.

“It’s awesome to see the kids have that because they worked very hard.”

The game began just like the previous two games between the teams, with both team trading baskets. A Seath 3-pointer gave the Cardinals a 10-6 lead.

The Cardinals were up 12-11 heading into the second quarter, where both teams were held scoreless through the first three minutes. The Hornets were up 18-16 late in the quarter before Seath buried a 3-pointer as time expired to bring the crowd to its feet.

The shot gave the Cardinals a much-needed energy boost heading into the locker room.

Big Rapids kept the energy high in the third quarter. Ray converted back-to-back acrobatic baskets at the rim to give the Cardinals a 25-22 lead. Moments later, Seath and Morningstar hit consecutive 3-pointers to extend Big Rapids’ lead to 32-24.

“When Savannah hit that halfcourt shot, that really got us hyped for the second half,” Strickland said. “We had to execute all of our plays and we were able to do that and step up our play.”

Trailing 34-26 in a pivotal fourth quarter, the Hornets had their sights set on making a comeback. Back-to-back Libby Ledford 3-pointers cut Big Rapids’ lead to 38-34.

Those would be the last points of Central Montcalm’s season.

Strickland took over down the stretch, making three straight post baskets to push Big Rapids’ lead to double digits. A Morningstar jumper with roughly two minutes remaining was the final nail in the coffin.

“Ledford is a heckuva shooter,” Haist said. “She has that ability all the time. I thought Leah played great defense on her.”

The Hornets’ weapon of choice is perimeter shooting and no team had been able to crack that code this season. The Cardinals dug deep and held the Hornets to 4 of 23 from 3-point land.

“Limiting their perimeter play was a huge key for us tonight,” Strickland said. “We did a good job of getting out on the shooters and putting a hand up in their face to at least contest a shot.”

Wednesday’s win was an emotional one, but the Cardinals (20-2) don’t have much time to celebrate. They move on to host Clare (13-8) at 7 p.m. Friday in the Class B district final.

“We have to take care of a few things in practice tomorrow,” Strickland said. “We can’t back down and step up just like we did tonight.”

“I’m proud of our team,” Haist said. “We’re excited to have a chance to keep playing. We have at least one more game.”

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