By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – It’s been a long time since the Muskegon girls basketball has laid claim to a district hoops title.

Muskegon head coach Taushauna Burrel holds aloft the girls district title trophy, the school's first such title since 2002 and just its second overall. Photo/Mark Lewis

Muskegon head coach Taushauna Burrel holds aloft the girls district title trophy, the school’s first such title since 2002 and just its second overall. Photo/Mark Lewis

Twelve years, in fact.

Big Reds head coach Taushauna Burrel should know. She was there.

Burrell helped lead her 2002 team to an undefeated regular season, seizing the district title before falling in the regional final game.

It was the program’s lone district girls title.

Well, it was until Friday night.

The Big Reds battled back from two poor quarters and a near-double-digit deficit heading into the fourth only to score 13 of the last 16 points of the game to come away with the 61-56 victory and the district crown.

For Burrell, the win completed a spooky set of coincidences.

“I told my girls, the first time we came here,” she said. “‘That year, we played Reeths-Puffer first; this year, we played Reeths-Puffer first. That year, Grand Haven got upset; this year Grand Haven got upset’. It was a lot of history repeating itself, a lot of flashbacks coming into today. I (also) told the girls, ‘What we did then was the old. Now it’s time for you guys to usher in the new. Tonight you’re going to do a new thing.’”

Mona Shores looked in control, though, until senior guard Jasmyn Walker hit her head while going in for a layup late in the game. Walker, who had heretofore scored 30 of Shores’ 49 points before her injury, missed the front end of a one-and-one, left the game for five minutes, and never looked the same the rest of the way.

Not that the Big Reds failed to seize the opportunity as well.

In fact, things worked to perfection for Muskegon in the first, with the Big Reds utilizing full-court pressure to cause turnovers and easy baskets. Senior Keiarra Guy nailed a three, and teammates Janiece Levelston and Jade Paige combined for 10 points in the first, giving Muskegon a 20-12 lead.

Walker scored all 12 of the Sailors’ first-quarter points.

And just like that, fortunes turned and Shores was suddenly in control. Keyed by seven-straight points from senior Sarah Jones – a three-pointer-and-one conversion and another three pointer 30 seconds later – the Sailors tied it at 20-all, and then took the 24-21 lead. Later they would finish the half on a 5-0 run to lead 31-29 at the break.

Then the Sailors turned on the gas, especially Walker who was simply unstoppable in the third, piling up 14 points from jump shots, dribble-drive layups and numerous putbacks with strength.

“It’s like that old boxing analogy, ‘You never know how good you are until you get hit in the mouth,’” said Kurth. “We got hit in the mouth with everything Muskegon had. We came back and we took the lead. We took control of the game, we took control of the game again in the third and fourth quarters.”

But Walker’s slashing, all-out style counted against her early in the fourth, when she crashed to the floor. It was the second brutal collision of the night, the first coming in the first half, as Jones was defending against a fast break. She collided with a player, fell backward on the floor and then flipped over onto her stomach. Jones stayed motionless for a couple moments, as the crowd awaited her condition. She soon got up but seemed to have lost a step or two for a couples minutes afterward.

Walker’s injury was more substantial, and she watched helplessly from the bench as the contest marched forward.

From then on, the march would be lead by Muskegon’s press. Burrell and the Big Reds were ready, unleashing a 17-1 run that made it 58-50 Muskegon sophomore Mardrekia Cook scored nine points off the bench in that stretch.

“I believed in us so much,” she explained. “Eight minutes is a lot of time, and if we can keep our heads for eight minutes, if we can play every possession and not worry about the scoreboard, we would come out on top.”

Free-throws ensued as the game that seemed destined for a legendary finish ended instead with a whimper.

The orderly finish to the hectic game suited Burrell just fine.

“Tonight it was a whole lot of motivational talk,” said Burrell. “More than Xs and Os sometimes, but I had to make sure they not only kept their heads in it, but that they keep their hearts in it too. I can’t be any more excited, and I can’t be any more exhausted.”

For the Sailors, Kurth spoke highly of his senior class.

“This senior class had the best chemistry of any team I’ve ever coached,” said Kurth. “We had a great ride, we had a lot of fun, and we improved a ton over the course of the season. The seniors have left a legacy for the younger kids.”

Of Walker, Kurth said simply, “She’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

And for Burrell, the win was a long time coming.

“It’s amazing, it really is,” she said. “To have played in it and to know what it takes to win one, it’s nothing short of amazing. It’s like a little piece of heaven. This is a joyous occasion.”

Paige and Cook finished with 17 points apiece, senior Raven Moore added 11 points for Muskegon.

Walker had 16 boards and four steals to go with her 30 points, while Jones had nine points, and

freshman Jordan Walker dished out six assists in the loss.