By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – Muskegon girls basketball coach Rodney Walker always says his team has plenty of players who can pick up the scoring slack, if Alyza Winston has a slow night.

His Big Reds proved their coach correct at a most opportune time.

The Muskegon girls basketball team, one of the best in the area, went nose-to-nose with Grand Haven, the other best team around, in the first round of the Division 1 district tournament at Reeths-Puffer High School on Monday.

The Big Reds had to overcome their share of challenges. They started out cold, scoring only five points in the first five minutes and missing 12 shots in the first quarter. And Winston, a Michigan State University commit who usually paces the offense, was limited to 11 points in the game.

But tiny Brianna Alexander, who stands all of 5-foot-1, hit a lot of shots when they were really needed and finished with a team-high 18 points.  Also stepping up was post player Diynasti Dowell, who totaled 16 points, including three triples. The two seniors provided just enough offense to allow the Big Reds to escape with a 52-47 victory over the Bucs.

Alli Keyser pushes the ball up the floor as Muskegon’s Brianna Alexander follows. Photo/Joe Lane

Muskegon, 16-4, advances to face Grand Rapids Union in Wednesday’s district semifinals. Grand Haven finished the season with a  17-4 record.

“Our girls kind of took it personal, because there were some things said in the paper that we only have one scorer,” Walker said. “Tonight we proved we have more than once scorer. We want to show we have a team and we’re moving forward as a team. We did a good job of showing we definitely have more than one player.”

The first quarter was extremely ugly for both teams, with a lot more missed shots and turnovers than baskets. The Big Reds didn’t score until nearly three minutes into the game, and Grand Haven went about the same amount of time without a point later in the quarter.

Muskegon led 12-9 at the first buzzer.

Both offenses heated up in the second quarter, trading bucket for bucket and scoring 15 points apiece. The Big Reds led 27-24 at halftime, largely due to Alexander, who scored 12 of her 18 points in the first half when her team really needed a boost.

“We saw she wasn’t really hitting it, so we all just pitched in,” said Alexander about Winston’s quiet production. “A lot of people underestimate me because of my size, and they’re all bigger than me. I like to take it into my own hands and show them I can attack six-foot girls.”

The Big Reds opened the third quarter with an 8-3 run and led 35-27 nearly three minutes in. But Grand Haven fought back with a 9-2 run, sparked by a triple and a layup from Jolee Houle, and trailed 43-38 at the end of the quarter.

Grand Haven opened the fourth quarter with a 6-0 run to pull take a 44-43 edge. The lead changed hands two more times after that, before Alexander hit a layup with 2:36 remaining, and added another with 1:53 left, to give the Big Reds a 49-46 lead, which they did not surrender.

Alyza Winston pushes the ball past half court for Muskegon. Photo/Joe Lane

“She’s been doing that all year for us,” Walker said about Alexander’s clutch points. “It didn’t surprise me.”

The Bucs were down 50-47 with 43 seconds left and got a final chance when a bad Muskegon pass went out of bounds and gave them possession. They set up for a 3-pointer that could have tied the score, but struggled against an aggressive Muskegon defense, and their final shot missed the mark.

Winston finished off the victory with a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining. She finished with five assists, four rebounds and a steal. Nia Miskel led the Big Reds on the board with 10 rebounds while Dowell grabbed nine.

Houle, a junior guard, led Grand Haven with 18 points, including three triples. Senior center Esther Byington added 14 for the Bucs.