ESCANABA - Many high school basketball players in Michigan can only dream of having a chance to play in the state semifinals at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
St. Ignace senior Sarah Cullip, however, will be making her fourth trip to MSU in as many years.
The top-ranked St. Ignace girls made that possible Tuesday night by earning a 70-54 triumph over Forest Park in a Class D quarterfinal contest at Escanaba High School.
Paul Gerard photo
Forest Park’s Lexi Gussert drives to the basket as St. Ignace defenders Abbey Ostman (4) and Margo Brown (24) look on Tuesday night during the first half of their state quarterfinal game at Escanaba. St. Ignace won 70-54.
"It's just as intimidating and exciting coming through the big tunnel as it was during my freshman year," said Cullip, who led the Saints with 18 points. "We're excited about getting another chance to go down there."
The Saints (25-0), who reached the final four in Class C the past three seasons, face Climax-Scotts (20-5) Thursday at 6 p.m. in a Class D semifinal in East Lansing.
"Last year, we kind of knew who our competition was," said Cullip. "This year, we came in kind of blind. Our coaches did a great job preparing us."
Forest Park 16 8 18 12 - 54
St. Ignace 19 16 19 16 - 70
FOREST PARK - Stankewicz 6, Campbell 5, Gussert 30, Nylund 5, Isaacson 4, Robarge 2, Bradley 2. FT: 6-8; F: 16; Fouled out: Nylund; 3-point field goals: Gussert 4, Stankewicz 2, Campbell, Nylund.
ST. IGNACE - Cullip 18, Ostman 6, LaVake 4, Wright 16, Brown 12, Hinsman 14. FT: 12-24; F: 13; Fouled out: None; 3-point field goals: Brown 2, Cullip, Wright.
Cullip also collected eight rebounds, seven steals and five assists and drew the assignment of defending against junior center Lexi Gussert, who led the third-ranked Trojans (23-2) with 30 points.
"We had to play smart because she knows how to get players in foul trouble," said Cullip, also a three-time Upper Peninsula cross country champion. "Fortunately, my teammates were able to help me out in the lane."
The Saints led 35-24 at halftime. Forest Park, however, closed within five points on three occasions in thew third quarter.
After the Trojans trimmed their deficit to five for the second time, Cullip sank a 22-foot set shot from the left wing and a 12-foot jumper to put St. Ignace up 44-34 midway through the third stanza.
Gussert then drained a 25-foot jumper from the left wing and a seven-foot jumper from the baseline, pulling the Trojans within 44-39 with three minutes left in the period.
"At halftime, we warned the kids she (Gussert) was going to start taking shots," said St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls. "We told them this was her time to step up. I thought Sarah did a great job on her. Lexi is a phenomenal player. There's a reason why the big (college) scouts are looking at her."
But the Saints, fueled by their full-court pressure defense, responded with a 10-0 run. Senior forward Kelley Wright climaxed that run by swishing a 23-foot jumper from the left wing with 1:48 left in the third.
"We played hard, but the better team won," said Gussert. "They just worked so hard. That run showed how good they are. When we came within five points, it didn't bother them at all. I think their experience was a big factor in the game."
Forest Park coach Jeff Syrjanen had similar thoughts.
"They're one heck of a team," he said. "They have all the components to take a state championship in my opinion. They're just a real good team. We would have liked to slow the pace a little, but I don't think they allow you to slow it down. Their speed and quickness was a huge factor. We hung in there the best we could."
The Trojans, who appeared to tire in the fourth frame, were unable to get any closer than 12 points in the final eight minutes.
"When they put full-court pressure on you like that, it's bound to tire you out," said Gussert. "We're proud of the season we had. We had three new starters this season and made it to the quarterfinals. We're only going to get better."
Wright finished with 16 points, seven assists, five steals and five boards. Junior forward Emily Hinsman added 14 points and sophomore guard Margo Brown had 12. Freshman forward Abbey Ostman collected 12 rebounds and four steals for the Saints, who rotated players throughout the contest.
"We call the kids who come off our bench the little ankle-biters," said Ingalls. "We kept going to our bench and I think that wore them down a little. We told the kids they had to be ready when their number was called."
Forest Park committed 41 turnovers against the Saints' relentless pressure. St. Ignace finished with 21 miscues.