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ROCK STARS! Overlooked Salem hoops team advances to Final 4

 ROCK STARS! Overlooked Salem hoops team advances to Final 4

Salem basketball players rejoice after advancing to the Class A Final Four.

Salem basketball players Ashley Kopacko and Madison Morson have never stepped foot in Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, let alone launched a jumper from the iconic arena’s storied court.

That’s about to change.

The Rocks added another chapter to their “Us Against The World” season Tuesday by surviving Riverview, 55-52, in a quarterfinal contest played at Ypsilanti Lincoln High School to advance to the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Class A semifinals.

Salem (21-6) will face West Bloomfield (25-2) Friday at noon in East Lansing.

Cinderella story

Winners of just two games in the season before current head coach Rod Wells was hired in 2021, skeptics gave Salem little chance of contending for a Kensington Lakes Activities Association West Division title (which it won), a KLAA conference crown (which it won) — and the Rocks faced million-to-one odds (at least in the minds of doubters) to advance to this weekend’s Final Four, which adds an extra layer of feel-good vibes to the team’s success story.

Salem senior guard Shahd Bakkar dribbles around a Riverview opponent.
Salem senior guard Shahd Bakkar dribbles around a Riverview opponent

“I do not know how to explain this,” Wells said moments after Tuesday’s triumph, his voice hoarse from instructing his players. “All I know is I have a group of girls that work hard and have a chip on their shoulder. For the past two years they’ve gotten tired of being beaten, tired of being laughed at and tired of not being respected.

“I told them if you come with me and put the work in — I told them they had to do what I asked them to do — good things will happen. And here we are.”

Wells said the Rocks were such a non-threat to KLAA opponents prior to this season’s stratospheric rise, he heard opposing coaches wouldn’t even take the time to watch film on Salem in the days leading up to the match-ups.

You can bet West Bloomfield’s coaching staff will be watching some Salem film prior to Friday.

Morson (29 points) and Kopacko (15 points — nine in the fourth quarter) carried the scoring load, but everyone who stepped on the court for Salem contributed.

Morson, a junior, hit six of her first seven first-quarter shots to help stake the Rocks to a 22-14 lead. She also added 11 rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots, each of which defused what appeared to be excellent Riverview scoring chances.

They’re believers now

“From the beginning of the season, Coach Wells has told us we had what it took to make it this far,” Morson said. “We’d nod and say, ‘Yeah’, but I’m not sure we ever believed it. Now we’re going.

“I’ve never been close to Breslin Center, let alone played in it. This is all so surreal.”

Led by Leilah Howard (right), Salem players collapse on a Riverview ball-handler.
Salem forward Leilah Howard defends a Riverview player

Kopacko was huge down the stretch when the feisty Pirates made a late run, closing a 51-45 Salem lead with 3:24 left to 53-52 when Kaitlyn Patterson drained a corner three with 9.1 seconds left.

Rock senior guard Shahd Bakkar calmly sank two free throws with 8 seconds left to extend Salem’s lead to 55-52. Following a timeout, Cadence Kaminske fired a 25-foot triple try that was off the mark. Bakkar chased down the rebound as the buzzer sounded, setting off a joyful celebration for Cinderella Salem.

‘Super-stoked’

“Personally, I’m super-stoked to get to play in the Breslin Center,” said Kopacko. “After what we’ve been through this season — all the big games we’ve played — I don’t think the bright lights and the big crowd will faze us. We’re just going to go there and play Salem basketball.”

Kopacko said she is energized by how the Salem community has gotten behind the basketball team.

“We’ve actually had extra fans in the stands this year,” she said. “It’s been amazing. More of our classmates and teachers are coming to the games. We even had a decent-sized student cheering section tonight, which really makes us feel good.”

Salem senior Ashley Kopacko poured in 15 points against Riverview.
Salem senior Ashley Kopacko poured in 15 points against Riverview

Wells, who coached Ypsilanti Arbor Prep to a state championship in 2017, said his team tends to play better when it faces a level of adversity — like when Riverview repeatedly chipped into sizable Salem leads. Trailing most of the night, the Pirates grabbed their first second-half lead (41-40) late in the third quarter when Patterson knocked down a deep-corner trey.

“Whenever I talk to them about the importance of tenacity and resilience, they’ll tell me, ‘Those are old-school words; we don’t even know what they mean’,” Wells said, smiling. “I’ve told them time and time again that they have to dig in and never give up when the opponent is coming back at them and they’ve done a great job of reacting.

“My wife told me at one point this season I was being too nice and that I had to be me. So I got on ’em a little more, coached with more energy and enthusiasm and it’s paid off, I guess.”

If you have a good-news story idea for SocialHouseNews.com, please contact Ed Wright at 734-664-4657 or edwright@socialhousenews.com.

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Ed Wright

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