Dream start becomes vital win for Tech men
HOUGHTON – Even at his most optimistic, Michigan Tech men’s basketball coach Kevin Luke would be hard-pressed to script a better opening 20 minutes than the Huskies put together against Grand Valley State Saturday.
Playing the No. 2 team in the GLIAC – and a squad that shot 56 percent to beat Tech 70-65 in Allendale – the Huskies held the Lakers to 13 first-half points and took a 21-point lead into the break. Grand Valley shot 6-for-19 in the first half (one made three), with six turnovers and just one offensive rebound. Through the first 10:37 of the game, Tech limited Grand Valley to two paltry points.
The list of condemning statistics could go on and on, but suffice to say, it was the best defensive stretch the Huskies have displayed this season.
With the 69-51 victory, Tech (15-6, 12-5 GLIAC) moved into a tie at No. 2 in the conference with Grand Valley (15-6, 12-5 GLIAC).
“I thought our defense was awesome,” Luke said. “We were in the positions we needed defensively, and to be honest with you, that is as good as we can play. there are teams that are better than us, but we will give ourselves a chance every game if we execute offensively and defensively like that.”
With Grand Valley missing leading scorer Ryan Sabin (11 points per game) for the third straight contest due to a concussion, Tech was able to take advantage of an offensive identity in crisis by drawing three first-half charges in the lane and forcing nine three-point attempts on 19 shots.
The Lakers did not attempt a free throw in the first half.
As it was against Ferris State – and was not in the week-old loss to Northern Michigan – the help-side rotations were crisp and the close-outs quick.
“We are back to how we want to be playing defensively,” sophomore guard Ben Stelzer said. “It is frustrating when we have those mental lapses, but this weekend we played like we (are coached).
“They jumped on us (in Allendale) and we couldn’t claw back in the second half, and they jumped on us last year, so we were definitely focusing on the start,” Stelzer added. “That is the way we want to play.”
And as effective as the defense was, the offensive performance may have been just as efficient.
Stelzer gave the Huskies the lead for good early in the first half with consecutive three-pointers (Ali Haidar and Alex Culy assisting) as quick ball-reversals opened up space for the 42-percent three-point shooter. The sophomore two-guard kept making the Lakers pay through out the game – including several foolish possessions of zone defense – to finish with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
“He can be a difference-maker on the perimeter,” Luke said.
Combined with Ali Haidar’s 20 points (7-of-12 shooting), the inside-out combo was too much for Grand Valley to cope with.
“We have a lot of weapons so it is tough to guard all of us,” Stezler said.
Grand Valley managed to keep it from garbage time with a nice recovery in the second half, but never could cut the deficit closer than 11 points.
Luke kept particularly close watch on his team’s attitude and aggressiveness after the Huskies blew a 19-point second-half lead against Lake Superior State before eventually winning the game in overtime.
“We knew their rush was going to come,” Luke said. “We were not going to keep it at 21, let’s put it that way. We talked about just being aggressive. I said I am going to burn all my timeouts if I have to, because we cannot be put in that position again.”
The Huskies managed the two deciding factors for keeping a lead though – cutting down turnovers and sinking free throws.
Tech gave the ball away just four times total and sank 12-of-14 from the stripe to improve to 12-5 in conference.
“That is an athletic defense,” Luke said. “I’m not crazy enough to think that we won’t turn the ball over, but that is a good focus to only have four against that club because they pressured us the whole game.”