By RON DEUTER
KINGSFORD - When Lexi Gussert began her night 0-for-6 from the field, Forest Park coach Jeff Syrjanen was far from worried.
Theresa Peterson/The Daily News Photo
Forest Park’s Lexi Gussert fires a three through North Central’s defense Thursday in the Class D Region 32 girls basketball championship Thursday at Kingsford. Below, Forest Park Coach Jeff Syrjanen hands off the regional trophy to his players.
"She's never finished 0-for-6," he said with a grin.
Gussert, scoring 25 of her game-high 36 points in the middle two quarters, downed eight triples and led Forest Park to a second straight Class D Region 32 title with a 73-38 victory over North Central Thursday evening before a jam-packed, standing-room-only crowd at Kingsford high school.
"I wasn't worried at all," Syrjanen said. "She's too good of a shooter. She's always got a green light and she knows it. We just let her go. She's too phenomenal of a shooter. You know it's just a matter of time. When she finally hit that first one, she had that look like, 'it's back,' and once she's in that zone, look out."
Gussert's first trey of the night broke a 7-7 tie late in the first quarter, and the Lady Trojans never trailed again. After missing her first four from deep, Gussert sank eight of her final 12 attempts, one of those misses being a heave at the end of third quarter.
She lit up the Jets for 16 points in the third quarter, at one point hitting four straight from long range, quickly putting what was a 15-point game well out of reach.
"You can do whatever you want to try to cover Lexi and eventually you're going to lose her because she is too good a ballplayer," Syrjanen said. "And if you double team her, she's going to find somebody else."
Forest Park had plenty of role support in the game, as nine other Trojans hit shots. Sam Nylund totaled seven points, Maria Stankewicz had six and Kendra Campbell scored five - commendable totals considering the amount of players Syrjanen typically rotates during a game.
"Give credit to the other kids because they really came out played tonight," Syrjanen said. "Sam Nylund was just huge down there the early part of the game. Kendra Campbell, Lexi missed a few, and Kendra knocks down a three. That's the kind of things we can do. Maria Stankewicz, the freshman, she found her range tonight with two threes."
"We needed the rest to step up tonight, and they did."
Gussert also credited her teammates.
"My team definitely stepped up and kept me focused when I had my slow start," she said. "I'm extremely proud of them. I can't say enough. They played physical tonight. We knew it was going to be a physical game. I was just so proud of them.
"I know I get a lot of the credit for scoring, but I really wouldn't be here without them right now. They really stepped up."
Forest Park's lead was just two points after the first quarter before Gussert hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
Buckets by Morgan Wells and Audra Granquist helped North Central get within five midway through the second quarter. Baylee Wells drained the Jets' first three of the game with 1:10 to go before half to make it 28-20 Trojans.
But a layup by Adel Issacson and a last-second 3-ball by Gussert inflated the margin to 13 at the break.
"We just had to know where she was at," Jets head coach Nikki Laurila said of Gussert. "We had to communicate and stay tight with her. That was it. At times we didn't do it. We lost track of her.
"We wanted her to get tired. We wanted her tired at the end of the game. We wanted to front and move her and lean her every chance we got. That was just the plan, stick tight with her and get her tired."
The Trojans opened the third quarter on a 12-0 run, with Stankewicz and Sierra Robarge joining Gussert with big points. The Jets did not score again until Wells hit a jumper at the 4:45 mark.
"We've been a pretty strong third-quarter team," said Syrjanen. "Our plan was to get on them quick and we put heavy defensive pressure on them right away. We knew if we could get a lead on them early, we could wear them down."
Wells led the Jets with eight points. Darcy Rochon finished with seven, unable to connect on any of her eight 3-point tries. Granquist added six points.
North Central committed 22 turnovers, Forest Park's pressure causing many of those, but some occurring simply because of the Jets' inability to simply settle down early.
"Our goal is always to attack the basket, but every shot we take has to be a good shot," Laurila said. "And we were rushing. We were rushing our shots. We weren't waiting for our rebounders. We always look for lay-ups, close shots or open shots with board coverage. We did none of that.
"We kind of abandoned our usual philosophy a little bit, and I kind of chalked that up to nerves. We have a couple young players yet and some first timers to the tournament. That's going to happen."
The Jets also had trouble hitting from the outside, which was about all Forest Park's zone coverage was allowing. North Central was able to hit only 4-of-21 from 3-point range.
Despite the mushrooming deficit on the scoreboard, Laurila's group never gave in.
"They definitely got heart," Laurila said. "They got spunk, and they got feistiness. And that's what I like about them. Really, through this tournament that is what has sustained them, their heart."
Laurila said her team helped her achieve her goal for the season.
"The goal when I coach is to create a program that the female athletes and everyone in the school can be proud of," she said. "They helped me do that this season. I saw the kids with signs, faces painted, and all the little girls coming up to me in the hallway. That showed me that we helped achieve that goal, and it was all them who did that."
The Jets finished 15-9 and loses five seniors.
"I couldn't of done it without them, specifically Darcy Rochon was the leader on the floor throughout this whole tournament," Laurila said. "Dana Rochon, good minutes. Siena LaBonte, always strong on defense, a rebounder. They all did their job, and did their job well. And their experience showed."
Forest Park, now 23-1, faces unbeaten St. Ignace (24-0) in a highly-anticipated state quarterfinal Tuesday at Escanaba. The Saints held off Posen 74-68 in their region final Thursday night.
"They're team is well-rounded," Gussert said. "They are very well coached too. We just have to come out and play our game. It's going to come down to who wants it more.
"Honestly, if we can continue to play defense like we have been, we should be alright."
Forest Park's faithful always travel well for state play, and with Tuesday's contest so close to home, the game should have a real home crowd feel for the Trojans.
"We have a very good school and are blessed to have a good community," Gussert said.
Tuesday's contest will be a match-up of the highest remaining state-ranked teams. St. Ignace is ranked No. 1 and the Trojans No. 3.
"They're a darn good team, but we're pretty good too," Syrjanen said. "This is the match-up everybody has been waiting for."
Forest Park 13 20 23 17 - 73
North Central 11 9 7 11 - 38
FOREST PARK: Gussert 36, Nylund 7, Stankewicz 6, Campbell 5, Robarge 4, Graff 4, Issacson 4, Doering 3, Bawyn 2, Toivonen 2. FT: 11-16. F: 16.
NORTH CENTRAL: M. Wells 8, Darcy Rochon 7, Dana Rochon 7, Granquist 6, B. Wells 5, Campbell 2, Buck 2, LaBonte 1. FT: 8-15. F: 12. FO: LaBonte.
FG shooting - FP: 25-64 (3-pt: 12-29); NC: 13-56 (3pt: 4-21). 3-pt FGs - FP: Gussert (8), Stankewicz (2), Campbell, Doering; NC: Dana Rochon (2), Granquist, B. Wells. Rebounding - FP: 40 (Gussert 11); NC: 41 (LaBonte 11).