By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal

The Grand Haven Buccaneers have back-to-back Class A basketball titles squarely in their sights.

The defending state champion Bucs, led by Abby Cole and Taylor Craymer, overcame the heavy pressure and the quickness of  Westland John Glenn to post a 55-46 victory over the Rockets. Friday afternoon’s Class A semifinal game was played at The Breslin Center on the campus of Michigan State University.

Cole used her 6-foot-5 frame to score 23 points, pull down 19 rebounds and block 12 shots to lead the Bucs (27-0). She had plenty of support from Craymer, who poured in 20 points and had six rebounds.

On Saturday at noon, the Bucs will take on Grosse Pointe South, a 48-29 winner over Dexter in Friday’s second semifinal game. It’s a rematch of last season’s title game in which Grand Haven defeated Grosse Pointe South 54-53.

A Bucs’ victory on Saturday would be the first back-to-back Class A state titles since Lansing Everett won consecutive titles in 2000 and 2001. Also, that was Grand Haven’s 50th consecutive victory dating back to last season.

“It wasn’t pretty, but our kids found a way to win,” Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “We did a better job of taking care of the ball in the second half. I thought that was the difference in the game. In the first half, we just struggled.”

It was evident right from the start that Grand Haven would need poise and composure to overcome the Rockets ‘in your face’ pressure. That didn’t happen early on as the Bucs committed 10 turnovers in the first quarter and fell behind 14-10. What saved Grand Haven from being even further behind was the fact it made 4-of-5 shots from the field. John Glenn made 7-of-17 in the opening quarter.

The second quarter was a standoff as each team scored nine points. The Rockets led 23-19 in a first half in which they shot 37 times to the Bucs’ 14. Cole’s presence inside was huge for the Bucs as she blocked shots and altered other shots. Cole had eight blocked shots at the half. However, the Bucs had 13 turnovers in the opening half.

“It was just kind of difficult because we couldn’t get the ball inside at all and we knew that we had to because of their lack of size,” Cole said of the first half. “But, our guards did a great job in the second half.”

Grand Haven was able to grab the lead in the third quarter. Cole scored off an offensive rebound, Hannah Wilkerson scored and Cole canned a 3-pointer and the Bucs led 32-28.

It was Cole’s first made 3-pointer in a game. Her only previous attempt was an air ball.

The Rockets battled back to take a 36-34 lead into the final quarter.

Grand Haven’s prowess at the free-throw line was the biggest key in the fourth quarter. The Bucs made 13-of-19 in the pressure-packed fourth quarter, 20-for-28 for the game.

Cole gave Grand Haven a 48-43 lead with two free throws with 2:29 remaining, but Raven Bankston, who shared game-high scoring honors with Cole with 23 points, canned a long 3-pointer to make it 48-46 with 1:15 go to. From there, the Bucs finished the game out by canning seven more free throws. “They scored a lot of points off our turnovers, but we played a better second half and we’re happy to be playing (Saturday),” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said.

The huge game for Cole came on the same day she was named the Class A Player of the Year by the Associated Press. She was third in the Miss Basketball voting.

“Obviously, they didn’t have a lot of size,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “They brought in the one big girl (6-foot-4 sophomore Diamond Jordan) off the bench, but (Cole’s) teammates did a nice job getting the ball in to her and we got some easy looks inside and, obviously, defensively she is just a game changer.”

That Buc defense also did a stellar job of stopping several other Rocket players. While Raven Bankston scored 23 points, five above her season average of 18, the other go-to players weren’t as fortunate.

Raine Bankston, who averages 12 points per game, scored five points on 1-for-16 shooting. For the game, the Rockets made 17-of-71 shots for 24 percent.

Grand Haven made 16-of-34 for 47 percent.

Westland John Glenn finished 24-2.

Grand Haven 55, Westland John Glenn 46

Hannah Wilkerson 3 3-5 9, Taylor Craymer 7 4-4 20, Abby Cole 6 10-11 23, Amanda Merz 0 2-4 2, Grace Kendra 0 1-2 1. Totals 16 20-28 55.

Raven Bankston 9 4-9 23, Kierra Jordan 1 2-2 4, Raine Bankston 1 3-4 5, India Glaspie Perdue 0 0-0 0, Sha’Keya Graves 5 0-0 12, Kayla Horn 1 0-0 2. Totals 17 9-17 46.

Grand Haven 10 – 9 – 15 – 21 – 55
Westland JG 14 – 9 – 13 – 10 – 46

3-pointers: Craymer (2), Cole, Raven Bankston, Graves (2). Total fouls: Grand Haven 13, Westland John Glenn 24. Fouled out: Raven Bankston, Raine Bankston. Technicals: none.