By BURT ANGELI
CRYSTAL FALLS - Kingsford dropped Forest Park from the unbeaten ranks Thursday.
Burt Angeli/The Daily News Photo
Kingsford’s Courtney Qualley (left) and Forest Park’s Kendra Campbell (15) battle for the ball in Thursday’s game at Crystal Falls. Qualley’s team-high 15 points helped the Flivvers edge the previously unbeaten Trojans 52-51.
Lauren Smith's bucket with 10 seconds left in the game lifted the Flivvers past the Trojans 52-51 in a non-conference girls basketball thriller at Eddie Chambers Gymnasium.
"This was a gutty win, amazing," said Kingsford Coach Mike Cross, impressed with his team's toughness. "It's been a few years since we've had a team that can gut out wins right down to the end."
Forest Park (14-1), down by seven points in the final three minutes, rallied to take the lead 51-50 with all-stater Lexi Gussert driving to the hoop with 22 seconds showing.
"Kingsford came out and played a pretty nice game," Trojans coach Jeff Syrjanen said. "They defended us very well and really put some pressure on Lexi.
"They have some athletes, no doubt about it, and they were able to take us out of our game a little bit."
Gussert tallied 22 points, 17 rebounds, nine assists and seven steals when the Trojans tripped the Flivvers 57-45 in early December. The junior finished Thursday with 29 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals.
"We shut her right down and she only scored 29," quipped Cross, noting the Flivver defense prevented her from setting up scoring opportunities for others. "We were going to defend Lex hard and try make her work really hard. She's a great player and going to get her shots."
After Smith's basket put the Flivvers ahead, Forest Park had one more chance. The Trojans got the ball to Gussert but she was under extreme defensive pressure.
"We wanted the ball in Lexi's hands. Who wouldn't?" Syrjanen said of the last attempt. "We pretty much said, 'you (Lexi) create and we'll see if we can get something if you can. Everybody else crash the boards.'
"We got a look, we got a shot."
Kingsford went with man and 2-1-2 defenses, along with pressure, to thwart Gussert during the game.
"We were going man to man and switching every screen (on the last shot)," Cross said. "Our girls did an outstanding job. She got a look but a below average look for her. She almost hit it anyway."
Sophomore Courtney Qualley paced the Flivvers with 15 points. Carlee Benzie, who sat out much of the first half after a blow to the face, chipped in nine including a bucket to put the Flivvers on top 48-41 at 6:04 of the fourth period. The senior also registered four steals.
The Flivvers added eight points apiece from Andrea Roell and Sam Fleming and six each from Amber Larson and Smith.
"We've been struggling to make shots but you couldn't tell by tonight," Cross said. "Qualley came up big for us."
Forest Park took a 27-26 halftime lead but Kingsford moved ahead after three quarters 43-38. Gussert scored all 11 of Forest Park's third-quarter points.
"We kind of lost our other shooters there in the third period," Syrjanen said.
In the fourth quarter, Kingsford went into an offensive shell for the last four minutes and attempted to nurse a seven-point advantage.
"I don't know if that was the right call," Cross said. "As it turned out, it probably wasn't but it worked."
Smith, in a key reserve role with Hannah Tresedder ill, netted the Flivvers' only field goals in the last five minutes.
"When she went in, she made a difference," Cross said. "Lauren hit some big shots for us."
Back-to-back baskets from Gina Graff narrowed Forest Park's deficit to 50-49 at 1:19.
Forest Park, with Sierra Robarge's seven points and Sam Nylund's six next in scoring after Gussert, got what they wanted from Kingsford.
"Kingsford is a quality team," Syrjanen said. "They played the kind of pressure we're going to see down the road. That's why we ask to play them twice a year.
"I know darn well Kingsford was coming at us with everything they had. Every time we step on the floor everybody is gunning for us."
Forest Park may benefit from the non-league loss, no longer concerned with a perfect regular season.
"Did we want to win? Absolutely," Syrjanen said. "Going undefeated is a hard thing to do. As I told the girls, let's make this our last loss. That''s our philosophy now."
Forest Park (14-1) visits Baraga on Monday while Kingsford (10-3) travels to Escanaba on Tuesday.
Kingsford also handed Forest Park's junior varsity its first loss. Jaelyn Jennings and Annika Erickson each scored 13 points as the Flivvers topped the Trojans 51-44. Kingsford's Maria Wiltzius chipped in 11 points. Katie McCole's 10 points led Forest Park.
Kingsford 14 12 17 9 - 52
Forest Park 14 13 11 13 - 51
KINGSFORD: Qualley 15, Benzie 9, Roell 8, Fleming 8, Larson 6, Smith 6. FT: 5-8. F: 11.
FOREST PARK: Gussert 29, Robarge 7, Nylund 6, Graff 4, Hendrickson 3, Campbell 2. FT: 9-11. F: 13.
3-point FG: Gussert 2, Robarge, Nylund 2, Hendrickson, Qualley 2, Benzie, Fleming 2. FG shooting: Kingsford 21-55, Forest Park 18-58. Rebounding: Kingsford 26 (Fleming 8), Forest Park 24 (Gussert 7, Nylund 7).