East Lansing — Warren Cousino entered the state tournament unranked and overlooked, but left the Breslin Center holding the Class A championship trophy its first in school history following a 67-65 victory over Detroit King Saturday afternoon.
Yes, remember North Carolina State’s improbable run to the national championship in 1983 with Jim Valvano as coach, well it was much of the same.
After all, Cousino (23-4) had never won a regional title … before this year’s magical run.
Kierra Fletcher, a 5-foot-9 junior point guard, had the third highest scoring game (37 points) in a semifinal Friday, then followed it up less than 24 hours later with 27 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the title bout. She made 9-of-13 shots from the field and 9-of-11 from the line.
Cousino’s victory overshadowed a strong 34-point performance by DePaul-bound guard Micaela Kelly of King, making 10-of-22 shots while her teammates made just 12-of-46.
So, why did Cousino coach Mike Lee feel his team could be playing for a state championship?
“Obviously, with No. 3 (Fletcher) and she’s a scorer, but also a distributor and I think what’s great about this victory is in the first half she played a big role, but there was other people that stepped up today as well,” Lee said. “We had a great start and played with so much heart.”
Yes, Fletcher had a lot of help. Mackenzie Anderson, the lone senior and 5-6 post player, had the game of her life, contributing 20 points and six rebounds. Freshman guard Kate McArthur scored 13, making 4-of-8 3-pointers.
Lee wanted to give Fletcher and her teammates the best chance to win.
“Our coaching staff stayed up until three in the morning, watching film because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the kids and we didn’t want to let them down,” Lee said.
The game plan resulted in the optimal outcome.
King (24-2), which advanced to the state semifinals last year, made 9-of-18 3-pointers in its semifinal win Friday. King failed to solve Cousino’s matchup zone, making just 5-of-31 3s in the final.
“We had to kind of change up our defense and play sort of a match-up zone because we knew they could shoot so whoever was in a spot we’d be there,” said Fletcher, who didn't take a three-point shot throughout the tournament. “Driving and playing defense are my strengths. I think the length of my body and getting steals and breakaway layups is fun.”
Fletcher got her teammates involved early on to set the tempo.
Cousino scored the game’s first five points and never trailed. Anderson scored inside, followed by a free throw from freshman Mackenzie Cook and a baseline jumper by Fletcher in transition.
Anderson was aggressive on the boards, making a three-point play (basket and free throw) off a putback with Fletcher following with a putback basket for a 15-5 cushion.
And, Cousino was just getting started. Fletcher was on attack mode early in the second, finding Anderson inside for a 22-8 lead, then driving the left baseline and hitting McArthur for her third 3-pointer of the half before scoring herself in the lane to open up a 27-10 cushion with six minutes left in the half.
"I knew if somebody had to step up from behind the arc it would have to be me and I was ready," McArthur said. "Hitting the first couple of threes were amazing. If I miss the first one sometimes I get off my game, get frustrated so it was important to make them.
"She's (Fletcher) so good at getting me the ball. She's double and sometimes triple-teamed and still gets off the perfect pass, right where I need it. Really, it's crazy."
Fletcher gave Cousino its largest lead (31-12) by making a short jumper, then scoring in transition off a steal.
How good did things get for Cousino in a 35-19 first half? Well, McArthur tried an awkward three-point attempt in the final seconds, which landed in the hands of teammate Rachel Hayes underneath for an inside basket as time expired.
Cousino shot 56.5 percent, but more importantly dominated King in rebounds (25-9).
King lived by the 3-pointer this season, and well died by it in the title game, making just 3-of-17 3s in the first half, then just 2-of-14 the rest of the way.
“Everybody wanted to try to get out there and shoot without rebounding so everybody rushed things, didn’t take their time,” Kelly said. “We didn’t crash the boards either. After every shot went up we just looked and forgot to rebound. We didn’t do what we were coached to do so basically we gave up on ourselves.”
But, King didn’t quit, cutting the deficit with its full-court pressure during the second half, pulling to within 10 (50-40) entering the fourth quarter, then getting within five on Kelly’s two free throws with 5:53 left.
Fletcher had four fouls while King was making its run, and that’s why she showed so much emotion after scoring five straight points, including a three-point play to push the cushion to 10 (57-47) with 5:02 left.
“When I got my fourth foul I was a little rattled and then I came back in the game and missed two free throws when it was crunch time (5:58 left), so I think when I got that one-and-one it kind of lifted my spirits up so we can go and win this thing.”
Fletcher scored nine during the final 5:15.
For Anderson, it was a great way to finish her career.
“I wanted to pass on my senior baton in a positive way, wanted to go out strongly,” Anderson said. “As a 5-foot-6 post my biggest thing is to get big on the boards, try and get in front of people and rebound and kick it out to my teammates who can make more plays.”
If King coach William Winfield could do things differently, he said he would have used full-court pressure to start the game.
“Thinking back I should have had us pressing from jump-street to get us going, but it is what it is,” Winfield said.
Lee thinks Cousino still would have been holding the championship trophy, calling Fletcher a “human press breaker.”