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How's this for a battle underneath?. Scrapping for the ball are Ford's Ashley Nickens (44), Dakota's Carmen Hoskins (3), and Ford's Alex Sorgi (12). (Macomb Daily staff photos by David Dalton

Basketball - Girls

GIRLS BASKETBALL: Dakota falls to Ford, 44-40

Competing hard are Dakota's Kylie Townsley (32) and Ford's Nikki Topping (20).

Among the rare uncontested shots in the Ford-Dakota game Friday night was this layup by Rio Dudgeon (11) of Dakota.

Dakota's Alexandra Hamlock comes across to defend a shot taken by Sarah Kaspari (33) of Ford.

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There are probably times that Ford's Cris Harper feels like a mother hen, leading the way for her younger teammates.

"I know if I do it, they'll be right behind me," said the Falcons' senior guard, who played an outstanding all-around game to lead Ford to a 44-40 victory Friday against Dakota in an important Macomb Area Conference Red Division basketball game.

"If I come out strong, they'll come out strong, too. They make me a better player."

Harper scored eight of her game-high 16 points in the first quarter to help the Falcons jump out to an 8-0 lead. It was a direct contrast to Ford's slow start earlier in the week against Grosse Pointe South which resulted in the Falcons' only loss of the season.

"I was real happy with the way we started," said Ford coach Matt Joseph. "We talked about how we came out Tuesday and laid an egg. We wanted to prove that we could play with these guys. Our kids came out in the first quarter, took control and did that."

Joseph said that Harper's play set the tone early.

"She did a fantastic job," he said. "She handled the ball 90 percent of the time. What she really did was attack the basket. When she's able to get to the rim it adds so much. She made great decisions with the ball. She certainly got us going."

Harper felt it was her responsibility to get the Falcons off to a better start.

"I figured if I got started, I could pump up my team," she said. "If they see me working hard, they'll work hard as well -- and that's what they did."

The Cougars' slow start left coach Phil McCune puzzled. Dakota committed eight turnovers in the opening quarter.

"We talked about how important it was to have a good strong start and I was kind of shocked to see how we came out," he said. "I thought we had two good practices to get us ready. I was a little surprised. We didn't show the energy or the emotion I was looking for.

"We played well for 12 straight games, even in the loss to South. Tonight was the first night I'd say we didn't play well. Give Matt Joseph and his team a lot of credit. Ford's defense did some things to take our offense away. We did some things we don't normally do. No excuses. We just didn't play well."

Ford's biggest lead of the game was 19-8 early in the second quarter after a steal by Harper, who fed a perfect pass to Ashley Nickens for a layup. Dakota finally came alive, led by the long-range shooting of Olivia Savage, who had three 3-point baskets in the second quarter, and cut Ford's lead to 23-22 at halftime.

The Cougars went ahead early in the second half on consecutive layups by Kylie Churches and Savage and Dakota maintained a slim lead for most of the third quarter. The quarter ended with the teams tied at 33.

A free throw by Rachel Chriss and a basket by Renee Shelton, who scored all six of her points in the fourth quarter, put Ford ahead 36-33, but Kylie Townsley pulled Dakota back into a tie with a three-point play.

An 18-foot jump shot by Nikki Topping put the Falcons ahead to stay and gave Joseph the feeling that it might be Ford's night.

"Shooting the basketball is not her strength, but when that shot went down I thought to myself, 'maybe this is our time,'" Joseph said. "Nikki shadowed Rio (Dudgeon) and Rio is such a great player but she didn't allow her to get her shot off. She played phenomenal defense. That's what she does for us."

After Dakota closed the gap to 40-39 on three free throws by Townsley, Shelton answered with two free throws and a layup to give Ford a 44-39 advantage with 29 seconds remaining.

"Renee's been playing her best basketball coming into this game," Joseph said. "She's able to get to the rim. She made some big plays down the stretch."

Alex Sorgi scored nine points for the Falcons. Nickens had nine rebounds and seven points.

Savage led Dakota with 13 points, 11 of them in the first half. Townsley finished with 11 points and Churches had nine points and 15 rebounds.

Ford is 5-1 in division play and the Falcons trail MAC Red leader South by one game. Dakota slipped to 4-2 in the Red.

"It was an important game," Joseph said. "We were both 4-1 and looking up at South. You don't want to fall two back because you know how good they are. It's still a long way away before we play them again. You can't let your guard down, especially in this league."

McCune agreed.

"I claim the Red is the toughest league in the state," he said. "You have to be up and ready every game. We start four seniors and a strong junior and we expect them to come every game, but we're human and off days happen. We have a lot to do to get ready to play South again next Thursday."

Dakota 6 16 11 7 -- 40

Ford 12 11 10 11 -- 44

Dakota (4-2 MAC Red, 11-2 overall): Rio Dudgeon 2, Olivia Savage 13, Kylie Churches 9, Miranda Bates 3, Kylie Townsley 11, Carmen Hoskins 2. Totals: 15 (3) 7-14--40.

Ford (5-1 MAC Red, 12-1 overall): Rachel Chriss 3, Cris Harper 16, Nikki Topping 3, Renee Shelton 6, Ashley Nickens 7, Alex Sorgi 9. Totals: 15 (1) 13-22--44.

Last Updated: 1/25/2013 9:19:25 PM EST