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Revamped East Lansing squad holds off Williamston in season-opening battle of teams getting fresh starts

Revamped East Lansing squad holds off Williamston in season-opening battle of teams getting fresh starts
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Dec 4, 11:50pm

EAST LANSING — Compared to what they were last time the girls basketball programs from Williamston and East Lansing squared off, the stakes were much lower this time around.

All that was on the line this time was a fresh start.

For the East Lansing Trojans, it was a fresh start after graduating the core of players who took the team to the Class A championship game, before accruing their first loss there.

The new-look Trojans hit all eight free-throw attempts in the final 11.8 seconds to close out a 59-55 season-opening win over the Hornets Tuesday night.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get out and play the type of ball we like to play. We have a couple of kids, their legs are still being nursed back to health. We gotta get in shape. We didn’t bring the intensity like we’d hoped to, but we’re very young. We had three sophomores and three freshmen this year, no seniors and seven juniors. When you graduate three all-state kids and Miss Basketball, you figure there’s a lot of work to do, and we found out there is a lot of work to do,” said East Lansing coach Rob Smith of the now departed Aazh Nye, Amelia McNutt and Miss Basketball Jaida Hampton.

“This is a pretty big adjustment, because you realize, after a game like this, how much teaching you still have to do, and it’s a long season. The pressure’s off now, because we know who we are, and we have a lot of work to do.”

For the Williamston Hornets, it was just a fresh start, period, after last year’s injury-plagued finish to the season, allowing them to wipe the mental slate clean, and start again.

The last time they met, on Jan. 30, it was a battle of unbeaten squads, pitting the No. 1-ranked Hornets and the No. 3 Trojans.

East Lansing won by 20, starting a streak where Williamston lost four of their final eight games, falling in the district title game to Fowlerville.

Throughout that stretch, the Hornets were without the services of their own Miss Basketball candidate, Maddie Watters — who tore her ACL two weeks before the showdown with East Lansing — as well as forward Paige Basore, both of whom missed the remainder of the season. On top of that, star point guard Kenzie Lewis was intermittently hobbled by back issues.

Needless to say, the Hornets would like to forget everything that happened from mid-January forward.

“We’re trying to move on from last year. We were rolling for a while. Maddie goes down, one of our 6-(foot)-1 girls (Basore) has knee issues, and if you’ve ever had back issues — when your point guard has back issues …” Williamston coach Pete Cool said. “We honestly went from 58 (points) per game, to about 33 a game. It’s just tough sledding at that point. No one’s going to give you any tissues or anything, or cry for you, but you just gotta do what you can with who you brought to the dance.”

Like the Trojans, there was quite a bit of turnover on the Williamston roster, too.

The Hornets graduated Watters (Western Michigan) and Allison Peplowski (South Dakota) and are still without the services of Evey Peplowski, who is recovering from an ACL injury that cost her all of club season, but at least they have a healthy Lewis at this point.

The junior Bowling Green commit scored a game-high 18 points to go with nine rebounds. Senior Meghan Douglass had 10 points and eight rebounds, while senior Allie Sherrer (Calvin College) had 15 points, including a 3-pointer to put the Hornets up 51-50.

Soraya Timms put the Trojans back on top with a 3-pointer to make it 53-51, then — after the Hornets cut it to a one-point game with a Lewis free-throw split — the Trojans closed the game out from the line.

Aaliyah Nye hit both ends of a one-and-one with 11.8 left to make it a three-point game at 55-52, then Annelise Lebeda hit both ends of a one-and-one with 8.8 left to make it a two-score game, 57-52. After Kaley Douglass nailed a 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds left to make it a two-point game again, Lebeda caught the inbounds pass and was fouled, again nailing both free throws to make it a 59-55 final.

“What I really liked about Annelise tonight, was that she really — and she’d tell you — she really struggled in our scrimmage at Livonia. Her and I talked a lot, and we were really going back and forth about whether she would start the game. I did something I’ve never done in 27 years — I had the team vote for the starting lineup, and it was unanimous that they wanted her in the starting lineup. So it made it real easy for me, and I think the way she came through down here at the end was indicative of her potential as a player in this program, and how she could help us. We’re real young, and we have a lot of players like her that just need that game experience, and they got it against a really well-coached, strong Williamston team,” Smith said.

“I’m not going to go as far as to say we’re a year away, but we’re a year away. We’re going to just work like crazy this year, teach like crazy, learn like crazy, and then see what we can do at the end. Annelise, the sky’s the limit. She’s growing, and she’s going to get better.”

Lebeda hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to tie it up at 28-28, then Sanaya Gregory hit a pull-up just before the end of the third to give the Trojans a three-point lead entering the fourht.

“Playing East Lansing, absolutely (it was intense). They have to be one of the better teams around in the state. We don’t want moral victories, but we competed. We have six kids that have never played a varsity game before, so we’re pretty happy from that aspect,” Cool said. “Obviously, like any first game, there’s a ton of things to be cleaned up. Shots at the end of the half, and the end of the third quarter alone — take care of that, and maybe it’s a little different. Hey, it is what it is, and you’ve gotta learn and grow. St. Johns Friday, and that’s that.”

Nye finished with 14 points, despite foul trouble for much of the game, but seemed energized by a big block of Lewis in the third quarter.

“It was really good to see Aaliyah turn it up, because we really needed that. Then, of course, she got her fourth foul, and it was kind of like let the air out of the balloon a little bit. It was good to see, with our leading scorers three fouls early, then four later. What I liked was the depth of our bench, to bring freshmen and sophomores … they really brought energy when she wasn’t in there. They kind of continued on with what she’d left off with, when she got in foul trouble, and that was great to see, because a lot of times, the best player goes down like that, and you’re scratching your head, thinking ‘It’s just not our night,’” Smith said. “We just gotta do a better job against zones, skipping the ball and knocking down shots early, and getting the ball inside. I think that’s the hardest part for a team like ours, early in the season, is being able to know what to do against a zone, know when to pass, when to cut, know when to take the shot. Once the game slows down for our kids a little bit, from what I’ve seen in practice, they’re going to be a very, very, very good shooting team.”