St. Francis starts fast, ends Fenton's record season

It's the IHSA state girls basketball playoffs, and the strangest things can happen.

Case in point: Fifth-seeded St. Francis was at home Monday night, facing third-seeded Fenton, which had set a school record for wins in a season with 26. But the Spartans were wearing their dark jerseys, indicating that, according to Class 3A bracketology, they were the "road" team.

That didn't matter. In front of a raucous student contingent, St. Francis raced out to a 13-3 lead coming out of the gate and never looked back, en route to a 51-45 victory.

The question begs: Isn't it weird to be the road team in your own gym?

"It is very weird," St. Francis coach Jeff Gerdeman, "but I'd rather be the visiting team on our home floor than the home team on someone else's floor."

The Spartans (20-12) will face Providence at 7 p.m. Thursday in the regional final. The Celtics easily defeated Illinois Math and Science Academy in Monday's first game.

Spartans' senior guard Lauren Bruce brought the lightning early, with a pair of 3-pointers in the first 2:18 of the game, part of the big run that staked her team to that 13-3 advantage.

That knocked Fenton off its axis, and even though St. Francis went just 10-for-24 from the free-throw line, the Bison were never able to claim a lead, though they were down just 29-24 at the half.

"I think we started off really, really strong," said Bruce, who finished with 12 points - eight in that first quarter. "We went in with the positive mindset and just played our hearts out on the court and I really think it showed throughout the game."

But the real turning point may have been early in the fourth quarter, when St. Francis senior guard Tristan Grosam scored a layup off a steal at 7:40, then added a pair of 3-pointers in the next two minutes that put her team up 45-32.

"I just kind of got in a rhythm finally," Grosam said, "and I hit them."

St. Francis held Fenton sophomore Gracen Haska, the Bison's leading scorer (15 points per game) and rebounder (10 rpg) to just nine and three. She also fouled out late in the fourth quarter.

Picking up the slack was her senior sister, Sophia, who had 10 points and seven rebounds, and senior guard Hailey Miller, who dropped 12 points. But it wasn't quite enough for Fenton, which finished its season 26-6.

Bison coach Dave Mello lamented St. Francis's early run, which dug his team a hole it couldn't quite climb out of.

"We talked at halftime, we said an average team to a below average team would have gotten blown out of the gym, with the start St. Francis had on their home floor," Mello said. "They were shooting the lights out. Our girls, as they've done all year, battled to the end."

The closest the Bison would get late was 49-42 after a layup by Gracen Haska with 1:26 to go. But single free throws by Bruce and senior Katie Anne De Craene sealed the win. De Craene was particularly effective on the boards, grabbing seven rebounds - six on the offensive end.

It wasn't the ending Sophia Haska was anticipating, but she chose to reflect on the big picture.

"It was an excellent season," she said. "We broke the record for the most wins in a season. My team did excellent, and I couldn't ask for a better team."

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