Too good to ignore: Hornets back to district title game, outlast Kings

HOUGHTON – A L’Anse team with an axe to grind chopped down Calumet’s postseason chances Wednesday, rallying down the stretch for a 51-47 victory in the Class C district semifinals Wednesday.

The Purple Hornets got back at Calumet, which won both regular season meetings and was ranked No. 5 in Class ABC?by the U.P. Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association. Now they get a chance at a Houghton team they beat in December and in whose shadow they are clearly tired of residing.

“The true motivation comes with the fact that when we did beat Houghton and Negaunee before the Christmas break, Houghton and Negaunee were still ranked higher than us (in the first UPSSA girls’ basketball poll). The girls don’t feel like they get any respect, so that’s going to be fuel to the fire. We want them. We wanted to come back on Friday. We think we can play with Houghton, we proved we can beat them and now we want to prove it wasn’t a fluke,” L’Anse coach Scott Lloyd said.

The Gremlins and Miners were ranked second and third in the final UPSSA poll. L’Anse was ranked for most of January until big losses to Houghton and Calumet.

As the second season began Wednesday, L’Anse got off to a slow start, only for junior dynamo Madi Swanson to lead her team back into the game late in the first half, then lead her team to victory late in the second half.

“We played super good defense tonight, better than we normally do. I thought our man-to-man defense was phenomenal tonight,” Swanson said.

The second half featured nine lead changes and two ties. The last lead change was triggered by, who else, Swanson.

Lexie Rowe drilled a three with two minutes left in a tied game, but the Hornets forced back-to-back turnovers and got quick lay-ups from Kelly Larson and Swanson to take the lead with 1:36 left.

Calumet coach Don Hill pointed to that moment, as well as a pair of possessions just earlier in which Tristan Baranowski made a three and the Hornets hit Kelsey Ross with an outlet pass for two right after, as critical to his team’s defeat.

“Second half, their transition was something that we struggled with a little bit. We’ve done a great job on that as the year’s gone on. That’s the one area they beat us on in the second half. I think it made a big difference,” he said.

Swanson made a pair of free throws to keep the lead at three. Abby Bjorn scored on a putback for Calumet, but Kelsey Ross responded with two more from the line, setting up Calumet for a chance to tie with inside 20 seconds left.

The ball went to freshman Clara Loukus, who fired from the right side and was blocked, collected the loose ball and reloaded, drawing only iron. Valerie Rajala picked up the rebound for the Hornets with two seconds left, clinching the win.

“I think the biggest factor in the game was they were at six or seven fouls entering the fourth quarter and we were at zero. I told the girls, with two minutes, I’m going to switch to a man. There’s no reason we can’t amp up the pressure because we have no fouls right now,” Lloyd said.

Meanwhile, foul trouble limited Hill’s use of two senior starters, Kristy Lasanen and Terra Erkkila, and tough inside player Bjorn in the second half.

“We were evenly matched. We had a 55-51 game in our gym and it was a close game here tonight. It seemed like we just never got the lead it seemed like we should have gotten. Turnovers hurt us, and this time of year, we can’t turn the ball over like that,” Hill said.

Though the Kings got off to a solid start up 15-5 early in the second, they never appeared fully at ease in the playoff situation, committing 17 turnovers and shooting 19-of-51 from the field.

“It’s hard to explain. The Hancock game and this game, I bet you we had 18 travels in two games and that’s just very uncharacteristic of what this team has done all year,” Hill said.

Swanson dropped a three at the halftime buzzer to make it 20-17 Kings at the break, and the Hornets started the back-and-forth battle by scoring on back-to-back possessions in the first two minutes of the second half for a 10-0 run bridging the break.

“I think Calumet let us run. In the second half, we got a lot of layups behind them. I don’t know how that happened, why that was allowed because there was nothing special as far as the rebounding or the outlet,” Lloyd said.

In addition to Swanson’s game-high 21, Ross added 12 and Rajala 8. The first local team to beat Houghton in a decade, the stakes are massively higher for L’Anse Friday in the Gremlins’ home gym.

“Obviously, they’re big girls and we’re a smaller team, so we need to play good defense and get the rebounds against them,” Swanson said.

Rowe led Calumet with 13, while Baranowski contributed a solid bench performance with 10. The Kings (16-5) lose three seniors, Lasanen, Erkkila and Meghan Westcott, to graduation, but return seven sophomores and a freshman next year.

“The seniors on this team struggled through some hard times, a 4-17 year, and they left this program in better shape than they found it,” Hill said.