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D4 FINALS: Adrian Lenawee Christian holds on with free throws to beat St. Ignace, repeat as champions

D4 FINALS: Adrian Lenawee Christian holds on with free throws to beat St. Ignace, repeat as champions
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Mar 23, 12:30pm

GRAND RAPIDS — All season long — ever since the divisional alignments were announced, actually — it seemed like Adrian Lenawee Christian and St. Ignace were on a collision course for the championship game.

And the actual meeting did not disappoint.

Despite not making a field goal in the fourth quarter, Lenawee Christian hit clutch free throw after clutch free throw — 10 of 12 in the final period — holding off St. Ignace, 48-46 in Saturday’s Division 4 title game, to repeat as champions.

“I’m in shock right now, sorry. Our theme’s ‘All In’ … and just very, very proud with the gutted-out performance they had,” Cougars coach Jamie Salenbien said. “So proud of the culture these girls have created. … Everybody’s accepted their role in, quite frankly, an era where no one wants to share. These girls are all about sharing, commitment, love, trust, sacrifice and their faith. And it’s carried us through to here.”

The Cougars (26-2) were Class D champions last year, while the Saints (27-1) — who have five championships under their belts, and four runner-up finishes now — were up in Class C. The re-alignment from classes to divisions made them the two prime contenders in D4.

“That’s a great team, and we knew it was going to be an epic game, and we just fell a little bit short, but we were definitely there,” St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls said. “I was proud of our kids, and their stick-to-it-iveness, even though we couldn’t make a shot. But they still kept at it, still kept at it, didn’t put their heads down. They kept fighting, kept fighting, kept fighting.”

After getting results from their press in the first half, the Saints shot just 19 percent in the second half, and just 11 percent (2 of 18) from behind the 3-point arc for the game.

Contrasted with Lenawee Christian’s 6-for-17 shooting from 3-point range, it’s a huge difference in a two-point game.

“We talked a lot yesterday about communication, and making sure we kept track of their shooters. And they had some open looks that we’re just lucky didn’t go down,” Jamie Salenbien said. “Even in the huddles, I heard the girls saying ‘Lock down! Just one more stop!’ As a coach, when you don’t have to say that, you can tell they’re committed to defense.”

The Cougars weren’t a whole lot better offensively in the second half, either, shooting 20 percent, and going 0 for 3 in the fourth from the floor.

“It’s that give-and-take of, ‘Do we take our time? Do we take the air out of the ball, or do we go?’ We trust Dani (Salenbien) with that. She’s such a floor general. She kept telling me ‘Dad, go five-out. Dad, go four corners.’ She was running the show. So I let her run the show,” Jamie Salenbien said. “We had an actual plan that got thrown out the window. We were planning on saving some for the fourth quarter, and then pressing them, but that got thrown out the window, and we were just trying to hold on. I think with just the amount of good defense being played out there, it was hard to get good looks. We typically like to run our quick-hitters and set plays, and we just couldn’t get into them, because they were up in our grill. Credit to them. So we just went to our five-out stuff, and trust in the girls, trust in their training, and make reads. In the end, that’s kind of what got us through.”

That plan only worked because the Cougars were able to navigate the St. Ignace press, which forced 13 first-half turnovers, much better after halftime. The Saints led by as much as seven points in the first quarter, turning miscues into easy buckets.

“That’s kind of our intent. We just kind of want to make it difficult, make sure that we use our speed. They’ve got great shooters,” Ingalls said. “Our press is our signature, but our legs do get a little tired, and we have to get our kids in and out. We executed, but then players will play, and the Salenbien sisters stepped up.”

While junior Dani Salenbien carried the primary load of handling the ball against the St. Ignace press, she got some help from her 6-foot-2 sophomore sister Bree, as well as Elizabeth Miller.

“It’s a little stressful at times, but I trust my teammates to get open for me, and set screens. We dealt with it,” said Dani Salenbien, who scored a game-high 19 points.

It was her personal run of eight straight points that allowed the Cougars to take a two-point, 32-30 lead into halftime.

“I can just tell if she’s in a little zone, and she was, so we were trying to get the ball to her in the right spots. She was feeling it today,” Jamie Salenbien said. “I think a lot of (handling the pressure) was just adjustment. The girls have adjusted to pressure. We some over-the-top passes that I thought helped. And our length helped us with that. When you’ve got Bree who can handle the ball like she does, it’s a gift, because it’s hard to match up with that, because she has such length, they can just throw it to a high point.”

While she finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, the 6-foot-2 Bree Salenbien had an off shooting night, making up for that with a 9-for-10 performance from the free-throw line.

“Honestly, I was kind of out of it today,” the sophomore said. “Just kind of hurt my team, but they all picked up for me, and I’m thankful for that. Just kind of pressuring me.”

“We just tried to throw the little gnats at them, the little ankle-biters, and try to get her off rhythm,” Ingalls said. “Just try to throw different people on her so she couldn’t get her rhythm.”

The game was tied for the 10th and final time with 6:07 left, at 38-38, but the Cougars hit eight straight free throws to push the lead up as high as four three different times.

Bree Salenbien made it a five-point margin, 47-42, with a free-throw split with 57 seconds left, but Hallie Marshall hit two free throws five seconds later to cut it back to one possession, at 47-43. A turnover gave the Saints a shot to tie it, but the 3-pointer missed, and a foul sent Miller to the line, where her split with 0:07 left made it a two-possession game. Emmalee Hart cut it to two with a layup with three seconds left, but time expired, and the Cougars poured on to the floor to celebrate.

Emily Coveyou led St. Ignace with 17 points, while Hart and Marshall had 11 points each.