DETROIT — The CHSL girls basketball championship games Saturday afternoon had all the trappings of a reunion.
Royal Oak Shrine and Wixom St. Catherine of Siena were vying for the C-D Division title, while Bloomfield Hills Marian and Dearborn Divine Child battled for A-B honors.
The players and coaches, and maybe some fans, too, were acquainted, having played one another twice in the same league during the regular season.
The results were the same: Shrine and Marian won. Both squads did as was expected the third time around.
Shrine won the C-D for the third year in a row (fifth in the school's history) by beating St. Catherine — making its first-ever appearance in the finals and in the intimidating vastness of Detroit Mercy’s Calihan Hall — 34-24.
Defense was Marian’s key to a 48-34 decision over Divine Child for its second straight A-B Division title, third in the last four years, and 19th in school history.
Two weeks ago, Shrine beat St. Catherine by almost the identical score, 34-21. The Knights had put up a dozen points before the Stars had two. Over the next three quarters, Shrine had a 22-19 edge.
Saturday, employing a smothering defense to build an 11-2 first quarter lead, the Knights forced St. Catherine to play catch-up again. For the rest of the game, Shrine barely slipped past St. Catherine 23-22.
The Stars missed eight shots in the opening quarter, including three 3-point airball attempts. The closest they got to Shrine was 29-23 halfway through the fourth quarter.
Junior Hannah Groth led the offense with 10 points, including six in the decisive first quarter. Senior Grace Murray had seven points to add to her 1,000-plus career total.
Eight players chipped in for St. Catherine, topped by senior Haley Gustad’s six points.
“We knew we could defend,” said Shrine head coach Wayne Gigante. “You worry about the offense, if you start missing baskets. (Winning the C-D title) is special for the school. That’s always our number one goal, to win the Catholic League.”
Gigante and his assistant, Ashley Alles, are in their seventh season at Shrine. They were together for three years at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, dropping the 2011 Class C state title to St. Ignace.
When he came to the Knights, Gigante, a chiropractor, inherited a team that had only won two games the previous season and barely fielded enough players for varsity and junior varsity. Within three years, the team won a district championship and made it to the regional final, losing to the eventual state champion runner-up, Flint Hamady.
“It’s been a lot of hard work and commitment,” said Alles.
It’s fascinating to watch Gigante and longtime (34 years) Marian coach Mary Cicerone on the sidelines. Both are enthusiastic, to say the least. Both get into the game — Gigante literally at times, barking instructions two, three steps onto the court, pacing up and down the bench.
The Mustangs went on a 12-2 run bridging the first and second quarters to turn around an 8-9 deficit into a 20-11 lead.
Certainly give credit to Marian’s defense. The bewildered Falcons missed a bushel of shots in a disastrous second quarter, going pointless for 7 minutes, 40.3 seconds until Maddie Rzepka made two free throws with 19.7 seconds until halftime.
Asked what her intermission pep talk was, coach Mary Laney said, “I told them I know we’re the underdog, but you got to put the ball into the hole.”
Her team came out a bit rejuvenated to start the third quarter and reduced the disadvantage to seven points in four minutes, but Marian sensed the game’s outcome was in their favor. A relaxed Cicerone could wave off her team’s somewhat cavalier attitude as it relentlessly expanded the winning margin.
Freshman center Sara Sylvester paced Marian’s offense with 13 points and controlled the boards. Senior Olivia Moore had 11. Seniors Elena Welker (14) and Rzepka (11) led Divine Child.
Both teams will meet their Detroit Public Schools counterparts in Operation Friendship on Thursday (Feb. 28) at Marian High School. At 4 p.m., runner-up Divine Child (9-9) takes on DPS runner-up Martin Luther King (14-2) followed at 5:30 p.m. by Marian (17-1) against DPS champ Mumford (15-3).
Then, next week, the scene switches to the MHSAA playoffs. Marian has been ranked among the top five in Division 1 all season long. It won back-to-back state championships in 2014 and 2015.