Strong First Half Carries Trojan Girls to Regional Title Game
East Lansing senior Ahlura Lofton had plenty of reasons to smile Tuesday night as the Trojans advanced to the Division 1 regional championship by defeating Portage Central, 54-33. (Photos for ELi by Gary Caldwell)
HOLT — The brand-new, fresh-out-of-the box basketballs that were put into play Tuesday for the opening game of the Division 1 regional at Holt High School didn’t exactly drop through the hoop with any type of regularity for two of East Lansing’s most accurate shooters.
In fact, it’s quite rare to see a player the caliber of Miss Basketball candidate Aaliyah Nye go scoreless in an entire game. Especially in a game where sophomore teammate Soraya Timms is held to a pair of points in each half.
But the beauty of this year’s Trojan girls team — which upped its overall record to 23-1 with a 54-33 victory over Portage Central — is that the rotation of players running in and out of the game at any moment not only can wreak havoc with their full-court, pressing defense, but they also pick each other up offensively when someone might be struggling.
So while Nye and Timms couldn’t find the shooting rhythm that often makes them difficult to contain, three Trojan seniors — Lamariyee “Sug” Williams, Ahlura Lofton and Sanaya Gregory — led the first-half surge by combining for 34 of East Lansing’s 41 points.
Trojan senior guard Sanaya Gregory (4) dribbles past Portage Central's Jada Sims during Tuesday’s regional semifinal game at Holt.
“Any time you would tell me that we have three players in double figures and we’re up forty-one fifteen [41-15] at halftime … and Aaliyah Nye has not scored a point … I’d say that’s a nice team game,” East Lansing head coach Rob Smith said. “Kudos to Aaliyah. She didn’t stress out. They [Portage Central] were taking her out (of our offense) and she simply deferred to her teammates. That says a lot.”
Williams, Lofton and Gregory scored on a variety of fast breaks, drives to the basket, mid-range jump shots and three-point goals. Williams made all seven of her field goal attempts in the first half, and was happy to step up with one of her best offensive games (14 points) of the season.
“It feels amazing for us as a team (to get to the regional championship), and for me, I’ve never been this far (in the tournament),” said Williams, who transferred to East Lansing from River Rouge High School prior to the start of the school year. “I was feeling good before the game, and I knew if my teammates needed help that I needed to pick up the slack.”
Portage Central, which finished the season 20-4, trailed by seven points in the first 90 seconds and didn’t score its first points until midway through the first quarter. East Lansing led 14-2 when Mustangs head coach Rob Brown called his second timeout with 3:24 to play in the first quarter.
Lamariyee “Sug” Williams led East Lansing in scoring with 14 points. She made all seven of her field goal attempts in the first half, in which East Lansing outscored Portage Central, 41-15.
“That first half, we were nervous,” Brown said. “We weren’t playing basketball, we were playing scared. That’s what we talked about at halftime and during timeouts. To get refocused, that it’s just a game.”
Brown also knew that stopping one or two of East Lansing’s top players from scoring would not be enough for his team.
“From what we saw on tape, they are so strong everywhere … and unselfish,” Brown said. “It does surprise me (that we trailed by 26 at halftime and Nye and Timms has two points between them) but at the same time it doesn’t. They’re obviously the best team we’ve faced by far.”
Gregory and Lofton finished with 12 and 11 points, respectively, for the Trojans, who will play Holt (20-4) at 7 p.m. Thursday for the regional championship. Holt defeated Battle Creek Central, 51-40, in Tuesday’s second semifinal game.
A third victory over the Rams this season (East Lansing won 71-30 on Feb. 14, and 58-39 on Jan. 10), would put the Trojans in next Tuesday’s Division 1 quarterfinal game at Calvin University in Grand Rapids against the winner of the East Grand Rapids (22-1)-Hudsonville (22-1) regional final.
Bre'Naya Lane looks for an open teammate during the second half Tuesday at Holt High School.
Smith knows how important Wednesday’s practice will be for the Trojans in preparation for the regional championship.
“Portage played really hard in the second half and their starters came out punching, and did some really good things,” Smith said. “Lesson learned. We need to be really focused in practice [today]. That’s going to be key moving forward into Thursday’s game.”
Holt, like Portage Central, knows what to expect.
“We want to play really fast,” Smith said. “We want to challenge you to a full-court game. Teams will try to slow us down, and we have counter measures for that.”
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