Tech’s Haidar hits Northwood hard

HOUGHTON – For Michigan Tech men’s basketball opponents this season, the question has not been whether you double-team reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar, but how, when and where to double the 6-foot-7 post behemoth.

The assumption that it would take two defenders, at least occasionally checking the Tech senior, has rarely been challenged.

Northwood went against the grain Thursday night, however, leaving forwards Wes Wilcox, Will Bowles and Robertas Grabauskas to tangle with Haidar one-on-one.

In a turn of events that surprised exactly zero attendees at the SDC, Haidar posted 32 points, Tech enjoyed their highest regulation score since November and the Huskies sent the Timberwolves packing 82-70. Tech posted a supremely efficient 1.32 points per possession for the game.

“He was singled quite a bit and that was a surprise,” Tech coach Kevin Luke said. “I’ll tell you what, those (Northwood) guys did a nice job in there I think actually – and he still had 32 points. He is just tough one-on-one.”

Haidar netted 20 points in the second half alone, helping Tech forge a 15-point lead with five minutes to play after the Huskies led by a precarious three at halftime.

The senior bruiser reached the free-throw line 11 times (hitting nine) to break a 41-year-old Michigan Tech single-season record for free throw attempts along the way.

Haidar set the career rebounding record for the Huskies earlier this month.

“When they are not doubling him the odds are in our favor,” Tech guard Ben Stelzer said. “They dared him to beat them and he did.”

Perhaps one explanation for Northwood’s reluctance to double Haidar could be found in the picturesque cocked right-wrist of Stelzer.

The sophomore shooting guard splashed three three-pointers in the game’s opening three minutes as the Huskies jumped out to a 14-6 lead. With Tech knocking down 7-of-10 triples total, Northwood may have just been the first team to choose the post poison instead of the perimeter option for the balanced offense.

“We came out unbelievably hot, we were on like a 90-point clip there,” Luke said. ‘That could have had something to do with it.

“When (Stelzer) has that look in his eyes and he comes out and he is aggressive, he is dynamite out there,” Luke added. “You have to pay attention to him. if he is hot he can go on one-pass threes. He is one guy we will let do that.”

Stelzer didn’t cool after the torrid start, finishing with 17 points on just six total shots as the guard worked his way for six trips to the free throw line.

“That was probably the most efficient I have ever been,” Stelzer said.

“Unbelievably efficient,” Luke added. “(Laughs) we should yell at him for missing a free throw.”

After Haidar gave the Huskies a 15-point lead with five minutes to play, Northwood switched to a frenetic, pressure defense to try and force its way back in the game. Tech kept cool and earned 16 trips to the free-throw line, connecting on every attempt to keep the Timberwolves at bay. The Huskies knocked down 27-of-31 free throws total.

“We talk a lot about mental toughness as well as physical toughness going into this game and I thought we did a better job in both aspects,” Stelzer said.

Along with the victory – which kept the Huskies on pace for a top-four spot in the GLIAC Tournament – the play of Austin Armga proved most encouraging for Black and Gold faithful.

Before injuring his ankle in practice in mid-January, Armga had been on a ridiculous tear, netting double-digit points in 11 straight games while shooting 57 percent on the year. He missed three weeks and five games recovering from the sprain, however, and appeared tentative in his first two weeks back, scoring just 12 total points and getting blanked twice.

Thursday, Armga nearly matched Stelzer for efficiency, finishing with 16 points on six shots. Even more encouraging was how he got his points, including a quick spin in the lane and pump-fake and elevation in the post.

“I told him ‘to forget about being injured, forget about everything and go from here. Because we need you back,'” Luke said of a meeting with Armga this week. “That was all that was said. It was short. It was simple and it was to the point. He accepted that challenge and I told him in the locker room, ‘it is nice to have you back.'”