By Mike Pidanick
Special to The News
Maple Grove had just let a 10-point lead slip away and faced a slight deficit heading into the fourth quarter.
The Red Dragons' players weren't thinking about that. They were thinking about making program history.
Maple Grove's girls basketball team is going to the state semifinals for the first time after gritting out a 44-38 win over Oakfield-Alabama in the Class C Far West Regionals on Saturday at SUNY Buffalo State.
"We had to come back," Red Dragons' senior co-captain Marisa Schuppenhauer said. "There was no option of coming this far and then losing it. It feels amazing."
The roller-coaster flow of the decisive second-half was a microcosm of the season for Maple Grove. It started with a devastating injury and will end on a grand stage.
"It's just a long season with so many peaks and valleys," Red Dragons' coach Bill Price said. "We go through the valleys to experience something like this. I'm speechless. This is why you go for five months, for moments like this."
Playing without junior Riley Caskey, last year's leading scorer who was lost for the season with an injury suffered in the first exhibition game, Maple Grove (21-3) will play Cambridge (23-1), which won the Section II title with a 60-47 win over Moriah, in the state semifinals at 3:15 p.m. next Saturday at Hudson Valley Community College. The championship game is at 7 p.m. March 17.
"There's no pressure," Price said. "We're going to enjoy the moment and get ready. If we go there, we might as well try to win it."
Maple Grove seemed to be in cruise control, up 28-18 with 5:09 left in the third after a Schuppenhauer free throw. But the Hornets took off from there, closing the third quarter on a 14-2 run. The Dragons tied the game on Schuppenhauer's 15-foot jumper and grabbed the lead on a three-point play by Courtney Hemminger to start the fourth quarter.
Defense took over from there as Oakfield-Alabama made just one field goal in the final period. Maple Grove hit 8 of 11 attempts from the free-throw line after making just 3 of 9 in the third period.
"I just told the girls we needed to step up," said Hemminger, the Red Dragons' other co-captain. "This was our game and we needed to go get it."
Schuppenhauer scored 14 points to lead Maple Grove. Sam Snow added nine and Hemminger eight.
Junior post player Brianna Smith was a threat all afternoon for Oakfield-Alabama. She finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds and keyed the third-quarter rally.
"She killed us," Price said. "She could do it outside, inside. We got into foul trouble and we weren't able to play as free and loose as we would have liked. It was a tough game, one that we had to grit out."
The 44 points was the fourth-lowest scored in a game this season by Maple Grove but it was business as usual for Oakfield-Alabama. In fact, Maple Grove's total was the seventh most allowed by the Hornets (20-5) this season.
"All year it's been defense for us," Oakfield coach Jeff Schlagenhauf said. "If you were going to tell me coming in that we'd hold a team like that to 44, I would have thought we could win. Our defense, for the most part was really good. It was just a couple run outs and a couple bad turnovers that cost us. But we have nothing to be ashamed of. We were thrilled to be here and have this opportunity and I think we handled ourselves really well."