The East Lansing girls basketball team is headed back to the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2018 after a win.
And though Wednesday’s win over Kalamazoo Central in a regional final, held at Gull Lake High School in Richland, Michigan, wasn’t in doubt for most of the game — and the celebrations were again muted due to Covid-19 — the significance of getting this crack at a state championship is not lost on the Trojans.
“We talked a lot this year about doing it for last year’s team, and doing it for ourselves because we didn’t get to finish out our season last year. And just with Covid, not knowing if we would be able to finish up this season — we just kept working and working and just finally having the moment to do it is really great,” senior Annelise Lebeda said.
A year after the state tournament was canceled prior to the Trojans regional championship game, EL was back on the precipice of a state quarterfinal. And despite a roster beset by injuries — junior Gracie Emerson and seniors Bre’Naya Lane and Allie Mayes are all unable to play — the Trojans rolled into states, winning 62-38 against Kalamazoo Central’s Maroon Giants, thanks in part to a 20-point effort from Lebeda.
Now, East Lansing is slated to play Hudsonville on Monday at 7:30 at Calvin College’s Van Noord Arena. It’s the first of three games on the path to a state title — a path that was blocked a year ago.
“And we’re going to be playing a hell of a team on Monday,” East Lansing Head Coach Rob Smith said postgame, “either East Grand Rapids or Hudsonville. We’re going to need a full squad.”
Smith said he expects Emerson, Lane, and Mayes to all be ready to play on Monday. But on Wednesday, with Lane in sweatpants and a walking boot during the game, and Emerson and Mayes playing limited minutes, the Trojans needed a signature performance from its lone healthy senior: Lebeda.
In her last two games — against DeWitt and Haslett in districts — Lebeda struggled offensively. As one of the top 3-point shooters in the state, Lebeda got extra attention as defenses played specifically to deny her 3s. And, Smith said, she got tagged with a lot of travelling calls, particularly against Haslett. She wasn’t properly establishing her pivot foot, Smith said. And with the off games, Lebeda’s confidence wavered slightly.
But Smith noticed a change on the eve of the regional title game. At the end of practice on Tuesday, Lebeda made a runner and then a 3.
“And she hadn’t been hitting all practice. And she started [to make shots] and I go, ‘There you go.’ And it’s like tonight, she was hitting them all in warmups. And I looked at one and I looked at her and go, ‘There you go,’” Smith said. “I think with her, it’s just confidence.”
He was right. On Wednesday, Lebeda paced the Trojans offense from the start.
Early on, she stayed patient, passing up open-but-contested jump shots and opting to drive to the basket or pass the ball and keep the offense flowing. She scored the Trojans first points of the game on a back cut to the rim, reeling in an assist from Soraya Timms. By the end of the first quarter, Lebeda had six of East Lansing’s 15 points.
But it was the third quarter where she started doing major damage.
With 6:44 left in the third quarter, junior center Ella Miller drew a double team with the ball on the low block, leaving Lebeda open on the left wing for a 3. Miller calmly passed the ball out of the double team to Lebeda, who gathered and fired a 3 that met nothing but net. About 1:30 later in the game, Lebeda came off a down screen on the opposite wing and caught a pass. She stepped into a 3, canning it.
East Lansing led, 36-20, with 5:14 left in the third. Lebeda knew she’d needed to fill a bigger role with her teammates injured, and she did. But after the game, she just chalked it up to being her turn to fill that role.
“And also I think our team is very — we’re very deep, Lebeda said. “So each girl is different, has a good game. So it varies.”
And while Lebeda kept scoring and East Lansing built its lead, Smith kept coaching like it was tied, or worse.
About a minute after Lebeda buried her second three in the third quarter, Smith called a timeout. The Trojans had just forced Kalamazoo Central into two-straight turnovers. But with backups on the floor for East Lansing, Smith could be heard in the huddle calling the offensive play “discombobulated.”
With the injuries to starters and three potential games left to win a state title, Smith understood the importance of Wednesday’s game. Rarely do bench players get to play second-half minutes in a postseason game this far along. He coached as such.
“I know it might seem overdone sometimes,” Smith said, “but I feel like the kids at the end of the game, the kids at the beginning of it, they all deserve the same coaching.”
Smith gave the example of Sophia Klinger (freshman), Payton Baker (junior), and Hannah Wakulsky (sophomore) running the Trojans’ triangle stall play late in the game. It’s not something they usually do. And the Maroon Giants, despite trailing by double digits, were still pressuring the guards on defense.
It’s basically a time Smith could treat like practice, and he sees the value in it.
“Those are the kind of kids that have to step up, and they might be in a big situation if we have foul trouble,” Smith said, “where they’re going to be asked to do those things.”
That big situation could come as soon as Monday, when the Trojans play again. The Hudsonville team they are playing is likely the best team East Lansing will have played to date.
So as players and parents snapped pictures with the Michigan-shaped regional championship trophy — a trophy they didn’t even get to contest in 2020 — Smith was already considering how to win the next one.
And if East Lansing does win the next game, they’ll be playing at the Breslin Center next.
“You get one more, you get to go and play in your backyard and that’s always been a fun deal,” Smith said. “You know, it doesn’t happen very often, but that’s why we play the game. Excited about the opportunity.”