BY MIKE DUNN Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — REED CITY — For the second straight year, the Gaylord St. Mary girls advanced to the Class D quarterfinals only to be denied a berth in the Final Four by a single basket.
The Snowbirds, who were beaten a year ago 59-57 by Crystal Falls Forest Park, lost this time around 42-40 to Climax-Scotts. The heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Panthers here Tuesday brings the St. Mary season to a close with a 23-3 record.
“It’s painful to come this close again and know we won’t be going (to The Breslin Center),” said senior wing Mary Spyhalski, a three-year varsity starter who scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds. “We played our hearts out and we were right there at the end, same as last year.
“It was still awesome to come here (in the quarterfinals) in back-to-back years, though,” she added. “Not too many teams get to do that.”
Climax-Scotts (20-5) trailed 23-21 early in the third quarter before gaining a lead it would not relinquish. The Snowbirds stormed back in the final minutes of the game to pull within a point but the Panthers were able to hold off the late rally and secure the tense victory and the team’s first trip to the Final Four since 1986.
“Our senior leadership showed down the stretch and the fact that we’ve been in the regional finals the last two years really helped,” Climax coach Dana Perrin said. “Even though we didn’t make it out of regionals (in 2011 and 2012), we played in those big games and it was a great preparation for this year’s group of girls.”
Climax senior guard Janae Langs scored seven of her game-high 18 points in the third quarter as the Panthers regained the lead and she scored five more in the fourth quarter to help the Panthers retain the lead with the Snowbirds closing strong.
Langs’ biggest two points came with 23 seconds left when she buried both ends of a one-and-one to put her team on top 42-37.
The Snowbirds pulled to within two when senior Chrissy Smith drained a 3-pointer with five seconds to go. They fouled Langs with 2.3 seconds left after the subsequent inbound pass and got the ball back one final time after Langs missed the front end of the one-and-one, but a desperation shot from Kari Borowiak fell short at the buzzer.
The large contingent of Panther fans who made the long trip north flooded the court after the buzzer sounded to surround the Panther players and celebrate their ticket to The Breslin. At the other end of the floor, the disappointed Snowbirds walked slowly off the floor, facing once again the prospect of coming so close but falling just two points shy.
“It’s tough to lose another close one like this but I couldn’t be prouder of the girls and the effort they gave,” said St. Mary coach Dan Smith. “The hardest part for me is knowing it’s the last game for the seniors. They’ve been outstanding. They’ve only lost six regular season games since the seventh grade. They’ve built quite a legacy.”
Climax made its first eight shots of the game without a miss to gain an early 15-4 advantage. Smith switched from a man defense to a 1-3-1 zone after that and the Snowbirds began to forge a comeback that ultimately got them the lead at the outset of the third quarter.
Spyhalski scored eight of her 10 points in the first half and freshman center Bekah Myler came off the bench to score five as the Snowbirds rallied to cut the Climax lead to 21-20 by halftime.
Smith drilled a triple on St. Mary’s initial possession of the third quarter to give the Snowbirds their only lead, 23-21, at the 7:37 mark.
Langs penetrated and scored with 3:45 left in the quarter to give the Panthers a 27-25 lead and they remained in front the rest of the way.
A mid-court steal and breakaway by Borowiak early in the fourth quarter ignited a final Snowbird run with 5:34 left to play. The late rally would come just short, however.
Borowiak, a junior guard who surpassed 1,000 points this season, was limited to just those two points as Climax double-teamed her throughout the contest. She found open teammates frequently, though, and recorded eight assists. Smith led St. Mary with 14 points, including three treys, to join Spyhalski in double figures and Myler tallied 12. Sarah Long pulled down five rebounds.
Destiny Froberg, Fallon Froberg and Stephanie Cochran each scored six for the Panthers, who will face unbeaten St. Ignace (25-0) on Thursday at 6 p.m. Athens (22-3) faces Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes (20-4) in the other semifinal at 7:50 p.m.