BELLAIRE — It’s a two-team race in Ski Valley Conference girls basketball, and on Thursday things got a lot tighter.
With two league games left to play, Bellaire moved into a tie for first with Gaylord St. Mary as the Eagles handed the Snowbirds their first conference loss of the season, 38-31, at Bellaire High School.
Bellaire (16-2, 13-1) overcame a slow start, then surged past St. Mary early in the second half when it held the Snowbirds scoreless for the first six and a half minutes of the third quarter.
“I’m really excited,” said Bellaire junior guard Leighten Koepke, who led all scorers with 15 points. “We came to play. They’re a really good team and it’s just a great feeling. We were really confident. The first game we played well, but our shots weren’t falling.”
The Eagles’ shots weren’t falling at the start of Thursday’s rematch, but their defense was tough all night. Bellaire was especially tough in containing St. Mary’s leading scorer Kari Borowiak, who still led St. Mary (16-2, 13-1) with 10 points, but half of that total came in the last five minutes and the Snowbirds scrambling to get back into the game.
“Her range is when she walks in the door and she made it interesting like Kari does,” said Bellaire coach Brad Fischer. “You never can completely stop her, you just try to slow her a little bit and tonight we were able to do that.”
Bellaire trailed 9-4 at the end of the first period and faced their largest deficit of the night early in the second, 13-4. But the Eagles started attacking the basket and it allowed them to score and quickly get back into the game.
“Our shots weren’t falling all that well so we drove and they couldn’t stop us,” said Koepke, who created several opportunities with her drives to the hoop.
“We just weren’t attacking enough so we talked about it,” said Fischer. “We adjusted it and once we started going to the rim good things happened for us.”
St. Mary took a 16-13 lead into the half, but soon faced a deficit as it couldn’t get anything going against Bellaire’s stifling defense. By the time Gabby Schultz hit a shot with 1:12 to go in the third — the Snowbirds’ first points of the second half — they were behind by five points, 23-18.
“Their defensive intensity was superior tonight,” said St. Mary coach Dan Smith. “They obviously did a great job, knowing exactly where Kari was the entire evening. I didn’t do a good enough job getting our post player, Bekah Myler, in a position to be successful. Early on we had some really good looks and then we did not get the ball inside enough to her in the second half.”
Myler had six of her eight points in the first quarter as she spearheaded the Snowbirds’ early lead. After that, she was limited to single free throws in the second and fourth quarters.
“Let’s give a lot of credit to Bellaire,” said Smith. “They came in with a great game plan. They played outstanding defense and they hit shots when they needed to.”
The biggest shot Bellaire hit may have been a four-point play with five minutes left from Madalyn Balon, who finished with 12 points. That pushed Bellaire’s lead to 10. St. Mary wasn’t done, however, as back-to-back threes from Borowiak and Schultz — the second coming with 1:26 to go — made it a 35-31 game. That was the last time St. Mary scored and Bellaire made 3 of 6 foul shots to wrap up the win.
“I’m just really happy for the girls,” said Fischer. “They work hard every single day. They do whatever I ask of them. I’m really happy for them because that hard work paid off.”
The remaining schedule for the two co-leaders of the league looks like this: Bellaire hosts Mancelona and travels to Onaway, while St. Mary hits the road to face Forest Area and Inland Lakes.