Mercy girls hoops team closes brilliant run in state semifinals
March 17, 2014
EAST LANSING — This was the end.
The heartbreaking, two-wins-from-a-title reality that the journey was complete.
Tears flooded the postgame press conference March 14 for Gary Morris and his Mercy basketball team.
A group destined for greatness, set on bringing a title back to Farmington Hills, had things come to a close in a 67-55 loss to Marian in the Class A semifinals.
But there was a realization Morris was ready to boast about, an appreciation for a group of girls who had “brought the storied tradition back” to Mercy basketball.
It all started three years ago inside a boisterous gym at Canton High, when a team loaded with youth gave a state power all it could handle in a regional final.
Sure, the Marlins lost that night, but right then and there, “I knew they were going to be something special,” Morris said.
He was right.
“You could tell this group was going to do some great things,” Morris recalled about the 47-35 loss to Canton in 2011. “You just knew right away.”
Sam Bauer and Candice Leatherwood were integral parts of that team as freshmen.
On a Friday in East Lansing, they were the unquestioned leaders of Mercy as seniors in a back-and-forth battle with Marian.
Bauer, the Marlins’ unofficial quarterback, threw herself all over the court all game.
Leatherwood, the team’s go-to scorer, eclipsed the 1,000-career point mark in the semifinals and did everything she could to keep Mercy in the game.
“I have no regrets,” she said with a smile after the loss. “It’s been a good run for us.”
That 2011 season sparked something for the Marlins, who parlayed that success into three more years of dominance.
Bauer and Leatherwood were joined in 2012 by four more sophomores on varsity who quickly became the core of the program and won 15 games that winter.
Last year’s team, without a single senior, took Detroit Martin Luther King to two overtimes in regionals before finally falling 44-39, ending with a 19-6 record.
This year’s team took the court with a chip on its shoulder, set on defining greatness.
“There was a great determination,” Morris said. “There was a great will to win with this team.”
Mercy rolled through the regular season with just one loss — a 57-54 setback to Marian — before capturing a Catholic League championship with, well, a 55-54 victory against Marian.
When the playoffs began, the Marlins easily won their district before slipping on the underdog jersey in the regional round against a Grosse Pointe South team that had reached the 2012 and 2013 state final.
A 73-60 victory against the Blue Devils earned a rematch with King in the regional final, and they moved to the quarters with a 58-46 come-from-behind win.
A 64-27 victory against Romulus High last week brought Mercy to the semifinals to face Marian for the fourth time this winter.
The Mustangs led 14-12 after the first quarter and used an 8-0 run midway through the second to build a 32-26 advantage by halftime.
Mercy seemed to find its rhythm in the third, though, holding Marian to just six points in the frame for more than seven minutes, narrowing the deficit to 38-36 with 30 seconds to play in the quarter.
But then Marian’s Bailey Thomas hit a 3-pointer with 22 seconds to play to make it 41-36, and after Mercy missed a shot and lost the ball out of bounds with 0.08 seconds to play in the quarter, Marian heaved the ball down court for an eventual layup by Brittany Gray at the buzzer and a 43-36 lead after three.
Mercy came out strong again in the fourth, using its press and a series of forced turnovers to pull within 50-48 with 4:36 to play.
But Marian went on a 17-7 run to close the game out.
“We started a little slow, dug that hole, and then couldn’t get out of it,” Morris said. “Obviously, it’s a tough way to end the season, but I’m so proud of these kids.”
With a 25-2 record, he had reason to be.
“It meant a lot to play with (these girls), be teammates and grow so close,” Bauer said. “It’s not a good feeling right now, but I’m very grateful. Not many people get the chance to make it here.”
Mercy hadn’t been to this stage since 1991.
“This was great, great season,” Morris said. “It’s a great senior group. They leave a lasting legacy here. To win 25 games, with the schedule we played.”
He paused, fighting back tears as he summed up a season and a group of players he’d known for the past four years.
“It hurts right now,” he added. “There’s a lot of tears (in that locker room). But as time goes by, they’ll realize what they accomplished.”