As senior guard Allie Mayes rose from the court underneath the East Lansing basket, her four teammates on the floor swarmed her, helping her up and applauding her.
Ella Miller, the Trojans’ starting center, had risen from her temporary seat on the bench, pumping her right fist and cheering as the EL fans in the bleachers opposite stood and also cheered.
With 2:07 left until halftime, the Trojans were leading Holt, 27-12, in the semifinals of the first-ever Capital Area Activities Conference (CAAC) Blue Division championship tournament. The Rams’ Jayda Harris had just driven to her right from outside the 3-point line and sank a floater that didn’t count. She was called for a charge against Mayes, who stepped up to take the blow from the much bigger Harris.
East Lansing inbounded after the foul and got into a halfcourt offensive set that freed up sophomore guard Soraya Timms for a 3, which she buried. The Trojans led, 30-12, after the sequence — a microcosm of No. 2 East Lansing’s 65-50 win over Holt on Wednesday night at East Lansing High School. With the win, the Trojans face Grand Ledge at home for the CAAC Blue title on Friday at 7 p.m.
While Mayes taking a charge and Timms subsequently draining a 3 served as a neat example of what went right for East Lansing — playing hard-nosed basketball and defending, and letting all that turn into offense — all did not go right on Wednesday. While the Trojans showed they possess every tool necessary to go and win the championships they’re pursuing, Wednesday also served as a reminder that the most difficult games remain the ones yet to be played.
“So, we have to teach as we go,” Head Coach Rob Smith said. “You go out and play a hard game like this and the next day you’re trying to save their legs, but yet you’re trying to teach them what you have to do to beat the next team.”
What East Lansing has done to beat teams this year has varied. Some games, a stout defensive performance keys in the rest. Other nights, a spark from one of the bevy of reserves the Trojans deploy leads to victory. And occasionally, the starters just pour it on. Wednesday’s game didn’t exemplify any one of those types of wins, but more borrowed a lesson from each.
“We have enough things in place where we’re prepared to compete any style of game,” Smith said.
In the early going of the game, neither team could assert their desired style or pace on the game. Play was scattered as each team struggled to string possessions together. But out of the mayhem, the Trojans still managed to eke out a 13-8 lead with 3:03 left in the first quarter, thanks to three made 3s — one each from Annelise Lebeda (50% from 3 on the season), and guards Gracie Emerson and Soraya Timms — and a couple of buckets from Miller.
Still, the Trojans were struggling defensively. They were getting outrun in transition by the Rams and on the business end, Holt found success feeding forwards Janae Tyler and Harris down low for easy buckets.
“When they get going in transition, we’ve got to sprint!” Smith yelled to his players from the sideline after a Holt runout led to Corrine “Corky” Jones fouling a shooter.
Then, in the final minutes of the first quarter, the East Lansing defense began to clamp down the Rams. The Trojans’ usual full court pressure started smothering Holt and forced the guards to be the primary scorers. When they did manage to break the press, the best the Rams guards could do was move the ball around the perimeter and try to beat their defenders one-on-one.
Following a foul against EL on the floor — as the Trojans led, 18-8 — Holt coach Cassie Kotlarcyzk implored her guards to test the interior of EL’s defense.
“Hey, look inside!” she yelled from the bench with 1:30 left in the first quarter.
And as the defense began beating back Holt, the offense flowed. To start the second quarter, the Trojans got back-to-back layups for two reserve guards — Emerson and Payton Baker — by having them curl to the rim from the corner off a down screen. The only difference between the two scores was the side they came from and that Baker added a little flair by scooping her shot.
And with that, the Trojans were off, going on a 10-2 run in the first 3:00 of the second quarter and opening up an 18-point lead. East Lansing pushed that lead to 20 when, with seven seconds left until halftime, they were inbounding. Smith told Timms from the sideline to “go quick so they can’t get a rebound.” Timms took off with the pass and looked like she intended to go coast-to-coast and score when she tried to bounce a pass to senior guard Bre’Naya Lane in the right corner. Timms didn’t get the desired velocity on her pass, but it didn’t matter.
Lane gathered and with 0.8 showing on the clock, released a buzzer-beating 3. Lane strutted off the court with her teammates in tow, as East Lansing led, 37-14, at halftime.
The second seemed poised to be a cruise to victory, but it was anything but. The Trojans kept Holt at arms’ length in the third quarter. But still, the Rams scratched four points off the deficit from halftime. They entered the four quarter trailing 51-32.
The East Lansing crowd got tense as the Holt fans cheered. When Annelise Lebeda, who scored 12 points (Miller paced the team with 13), fouled out with 5:32 left in the game, EL led by 13 and Holt would make it as close as an 11-point game.
“And so they did a really nice job,” Smith said of Holt. “I was really impressed with their effort. But ultimately when Annelise fouled out, then it was just a matter of taking the air out of the ball and shooting free throws.”
While it wasn’t the flashiest ending, the Trojans managed to do just as Smith desired, defying defense and daring them to come get the ball — or foul. Lane, Mayes, Baker and Emerson cycled through the backcourt, exchanging possession and burning second after second as they went.
When Holt did eventually start fouling, and EL started making trips to the free throw line, the Trojans weren’t perfect. But they made enough free throws to keep the Rams safely in the hole.
And now, in the postseason, with everything still on the line for the Trojans, it didn’t need to be pretty or perfect. Enough was enough.