AE girls comeback comes up short

By Brent Baker|Special to the Independent
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ARENAC EASTERN — Arenac Eastern's girls' basketball team is enjoying its best season in decades. But Thursday, Posen's Vikings showed what a little big-game experience can do as they held off Eastern's last-gasp comeback and clinched at least a share of the North Star League title with a 45-42 victory.

The win gives Posen a three-game lead over the Eagles with three NSL contests yet to play.

Posen capped a topsy-turvy fourth quarter by hitting 5-of-6 at the free throw line over the last 1:11 after the Eagles had tied the score at 40-40.

"The girls gutted it out," said Posen coach Karl Momrik. "We've had seven nail-biters this year, and it's hard to believe we've won them all."

Momrik said the Vikings' league volleyball title was a factor in his team learning how to make big plays down the stretch after going 9-11 a year ago.

"All these same girls were on the volleyball team," he said. "They found out what it takes to win these kinds of games."

The Eagles made an impressive comeback of their own in the fourth quarter. Arenac Eastern hasn't had the luxury of playing basketball games with title implications in a long time. Their 12 wins so far matches the last time Eastern had a winning season at 12-9 in 1987.

The Vikings seemed to have put the game away with a 10-0 run early in the fourth quarter that built a 39-32 lead with 5:53 to play.

Eastern got rebound baskets from Chelsea Dery and Maddie Nelson while Posen gave up a turnover, an offensive foul and missed two free throws.

Dery scored again with 3:25 left, and after Nicole Purol hit a free throw, Ashley Navarre's steal and layup tied it at 40-40 with 2:47 remaining.

Erin Ecker intercepted Posen's ensuing pass downcourt. AE coach Butch Beckham, with Danielle Jurek and Nelson on the bench with five fouls and Briana Dery playing with four -- and no other substitutes available -- decided to run the clock down as far as it could.

"We wanted to run the delay and were hoping to get a layup out of it," Beckham said. "Normally we'd have wanted to wait to get ahead to do that, but with Bri with four fouls, we'd have been in a lot of trouble if she picked up another one.

"We wanted to limit Posen's possessions, but we ended up with a pretty critical turnover."

Posen's Victoria Wozniak, who came into the game with an injury that she aggravated early in the fourth quarter, came up with the game-turning steal and subsequently drilled two free throws with 1:11 left for the lead.

AE came up empty on its next two possessions while Janice Ciarkowski hit one free throw and Wozniak two more to make it 45-40.

Ecker hit two free throws with 23 seconds left, but the Vikings were able to run out the clock.

"We had our chances," Beckham said. "The kids played hard, but we came up just a little bit short down the stretch. Games like this build character and help make you better."

The Eagles held a slim lead through most of the first half, sometimes breaking Posen's full court press and other times turning the ball over. AE led 22-18 at the half, but Wozniak drilled a trey to open the third quarter and neither team led by more than three until Posen's run to start the fourth.

The Vikings' pressure finally paid off as they built their 39-32 lead, with AE committing several turnovers to fuel the fire.

"We wanted our pressure to be relentless," Momrik said. "They did a great job handling it, but I think they finally wore down a bit. We did a great job of staying with it and staying in the mindset of refusing to die, even if bad things happened.

"I have a lot of respect for them (Eastern) and for their coaches. They played a great game."

The game wasn't without its bit of controversy as the Vikings weren't credited for a made free throw midway through the second quarter. With AE up 18-12, Tina Mulka made the first of two free throws. The scoreboard briefly reflected that made shot, but by the time Momrik was able to get play stopped to try to get the score corrected, neither scorekeepers nor officials were able to straighten out the mess.

With the game tied in the fourth quarter it looked as though the missing point could have come into play, but Posen was able to make the point moot.

The Vikings (13-2, 11-0 NSL) also had two free throws not credited to their total during last year's visit to AE.

"It was a lot like last year," Momrik said. "But we overcame some adversity between that, fouls and injuries tonight. It's always tough to win here."

Chelsea Dery led the Eagles (12-3, 8-3) with 10 points, while Ecker, Navarre and Nelson each had eight.

"I'm disappointed we lost," Beckham said. "But not with how we played. We had four underclassmen out there. It just takes time to learn to win these games."

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