East Lansing — Ypsilanti Arbor Prep coach Rod Wells watched multiple games earlier in the state girls basketball tournament and decided he was going to start out the Class C championship game by putting pressure on the ball to try and set the tempo.
Wells' gamble paid off, which had him lifting the championship trophy after Arbor Prep’s dominating 53-37 victory over Traverse City St. Francis Saturday afternoon at the Breslin Center.
Arbor Prep (25-2) — which played several Class A and B state powers during the regular season — turned up its pressure defense from the opening tip, scoring the game’s first nine points and never trailing to win the first state championship in the school's five-year history.
Senior guard Nastassja Chambers was the catalyst, scoring 14, including six in the opening quarter. Junior forward Cydney Williams had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) to help the much smaller Arbor Prep team to a 30-29 rebounding advantage over St. Francis (26-2), including 16-9 on the offensive end.
“We were fired up coming into the gym and we were determined not to let them determine the flow of the game,” Wells said. “We saw some games earlier, yesterday and this morning and I decided I wasn’t going to wait to start going after them. We were going to go after them early, try to put some pressure on the ball and see how they handled it early instead of waiting for the flow of the game so I just took my chances and felt the girls were ready.”
Wells knows his team and Arbor Prep made him look like a genius, forcing turnovers on St. Francis’ first five possessions, six in the first quarter, 11 in the first half, 10 more during the third quarter and 29 for the game.
“We knew that we had to come after them,” Chambers said. “We’re normally the team that always gets the lead so we felt we could come out hard we could maintain that lead and then we’ll have them on their toes. When they called the timeout (after 9-0 lead), we knew we got into their heads.”
St. Francis coach Keith Haske was impressed with Arbor Prep’s quickness.
“They’re obviously the best team we’ve seen this year, great defensive pressure,” Haske said. “They really took us out of our game. At halftime, I thought we were OK. We certainly didn’t play well at all and weren’t down by that much (trailed 25-18). I said, ‘All right, we’re going to come out and make a little run,’ but we just didn’t get that run established.
“I just thought they played a great defensive game, a defense we haven’t seen before. They have more quick kids than I ever want to see in my life again. Usually one or two quick kids and you’ll be OK, but they took out three and three more came in so we could never seem to get into any rhythm.”
Arbor Prep, which led 39-30 after three, changed defenses in the fourth quarter and extended its lead to 50-32 with 4:51 left.
“We changed defenses, changed defenses quite a bit and I think they didn’t adjust to the changes we made,” said Wells of his fourth-quarter strategy. “We started trapping in our man to man defense, sending a defender on man to man to trap the ball and we rotated that and then we went back to regular half-court trap so kind of went back and forth.
“We were disguising it as man defense and going after them and they really didn’t adjust to it. When they threw the ball they didn’t have no outlet because my girls covered the first three passes, which they did a fantastic job with.”
Wells left impressed with the play of Chambers, as did her teammates.
“She led us in scoring the last two games, but she didn’t always lead us (in scoring) in the previous games so she’s grown as a player, understanding you don’t have to lead us in scoring to be a good player,” said Wells of Chambers. “She’s really rebounded the ball, passed the ball and did other things, knowing they (teammates) had her back.”
Junior guard Ro’zhane Wells, Rod’s daughter, called Chambers a role model, saying: “She sets the tempo for the intensity on defense and offense, and when she plays hard it makes us all even want to play harder.”
Senior forward Annie Lyman scored 15 to lead St. Francis. Juliana Phillips added nine points and 10 rebounds while Lauren McDonell had 10 points for St. Francis.