T.J.’s TD saves Tech’s day

HOUGHTON – A game with some gridiron physicality ended with a play ripped from the same book.

After Derek Kinney’s three-pointer put Lake Superior State ahead with two seconds left, Ben Stelzer’s Hail Mary pass hit T.J. Brown in stride at the opposite free-throw line, and the senior laid it in at the buzzer as Michigan Tech stole a 79-78 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference win at the SDC Gym Saturday.

In a timeout with 15 seconds left, Brown said he told point guard Alex Culy if the Lakers tied it, he would take off in search of the deep pass.

“I said, ‘If they make the two, I’m gonna fly.’ I knew they were gonna be so excited to tie the game up, but they actually ended up hitting a three. I still flew. I saw nobody behind me, so I just ran. Benny gave me a great pass and I caught it,” he said.

Stelzer, who threw for more than 1,300 yards in his senior season as a quarterback at Manitowoc (Wis.) Roncalli High, delivered the ball on target, even if the only cue he had was eye contact on a play the Huskies don’t exactly practice.

“Usually only when we’re joking around at a shootaround, but I guess it paid off,” he joked.

The play was submitted to and aired on ESPN’s Sportscenter Saturday night and Sunday morning, where it was No. 6 of 10 in the “Top Plays” segment.

It was a thrilling end to game in which the Lakers matched their balanced offense (five players scored in double figures) with intense, physical defense (27 personal fouls and a technical to Tech’s 10) and threw both at defending GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar. Haidar scored 36 points on 9-of-13 from the field and 18-20 from the free-throw line. He tied school records for free throw makes and attempts in a game but made only one of his last two, giving the Lakers an opening.

On the Lakers’ last play, Rashaun Carroll barely escaped a Culy-Haidar trap, getting it to Derek Billing, who kicked to Kinney on the left wing. The senior, who had attempted just one trey all season, hit nothing but net.

“Our best shooter made an unselfish play and passed it to Derek Kinney and he stepped back with confidence. It’s the second three he’s hit all season, I believe, and he shot it like he knew he was going to make it. I loved his confidence. When he stepped back and shot the three, I was very excited because I just thought, ‘Hey, let’s win the game right here instead of going to overtime,'” LSSU coach Steve Hettinga said.

“He hit the three and our guys celebrated and we didn’t get back, and give Michigan Tech credit. They hit the guy streaking down the floor and obviously, you know the rest of the story.”

The Lakers, who made a solid 30-of-58 from the field and 11-of-20 from three, shot themselves back into the game despite trailing by 12 midway through the second half.

“We gave up a lot of points, but I thought we played well. Billing’s as good a shooter as there are in the league and so is (Alex) Williams (Carroll) is a good shooter for a freshman,” Tech coach Kevin Luke said.

The Lakers hung on Haidar from beginning to end. In addition to the two free-throw records he tied, he surpassed the school record for career free throw makes held by Larry Grimes (1971-72) in the first half with LSSU’s help. The senior said the Lakers played him as rough as any team in the league, with the possible exception of Grand Valley State.

“He’s getting grabbed, clutched, all of the above, he’s keeping his composure. With that being said, he gives out a fair share of his own. He’s not innocent in there. I don’t know that he’s grabbing, but he’s physical,” Luke said.

With the exception of his first and last pairs of free throws, Haidar made them pay every time.

“Their big guys, especially that big dude, number 40 (Lucas Holt) I think, he was just trash talking the whole time. I didn’t say anything, I was just playing my game, kept my composure and just kept playing,” Haidar said.

The intense play had an impact, however, as Haidar equaled a season high in turnovers with seven. He had five in the first half and Tech had eight as the visitors pulled ahead by as many as seven midway through.

“Turnovers in general … that’s our downfall every game. We don’t value every possession like we should,” Luke said.

A 9-0 run with back-to-back Stelzer threes put the Huskies back in front with 2:25 left to halftime, where they stayed until for all but about a second and a half.

In addition to his ‘touchdown pass,’ Stelzer made four treys and racked up 17 points.

Cameron Metz led LSSU with 19 points before fouling out. Williams added 17, Kinney 15, Billing 12 and Rashaun Carroll 11.

Tech (18-7, 15-6 GLIAC) can still tie for the top spot in the GLIAC by beating Northern Michigan Saturday if league-leading Wayne State loses its last two games Wednesday at Walsh and Saturday at LSSU. The Warriors hold the tiebreaker for the top seed if it’s just them and Tech, but if South Division leader Findlay also wins its finale, there would be a three-way tie, which would go to a complicated points system since the teams do not play a complete round-robin. Regardless of other results, it can no longer finish any lower than third in the overall standings and will host a GLIAC Tournament quarterfinal March 6.