Gremlins to be continued

HOUGHTON – L’Anse broke Houghton’s stride but not its spirit Friday, nor its run of consecutive district championships, either.

The Gremlins trailed 29-22 at halftime but erased the deficit immediately upon starting the first half and won their 14th Class C district trophy in a row, 58-42 over the Purple Hornets.

L’Anse gained an edge in the second quarter while key defenders Sydney Dillinger and Elisa Jurmu sat due to foul trouble. With the two back in to start the second half, Houghton went on a 12-0 run and never trailed again.

“We have a list of eight items we feel are important for our kids to execute at this time of the year and fouling and panicking aren’t part of the list,” Houghton coach Julie Filpus said.

The Gremlins advance to the regional semifinals Tuesday at Marquette Senior High School, where they will face a familiar opponent in WestPAC rival West Iron County (8 p.m.) Their run, which extends back to fall 1999, is still the longest active district title streak in Michigan and now solo second statewide behind Flint Powers Catholic’s 17-year run from 1988-2004.

“It’s a tribute to some great athletes coming through our system, number one, and number two, they’ve bought into the message we try to sell for success,” Filpus said.

It was a message hard to hear in the din of excited L’Anse fans after the Hornets went on a 12-4 push to take a 29-21 lead on freshman Abby Hendrickson’s bucket 1:02 from halftime. Blaire Zenner made a free throw to make it a seven-point game at the break, but the momentum belonged to the visitors.

Kelsey Ross drilled three triples in the first half, and the Hornets were getting scoring from Hendrickson (six points) and Valerie Rajala (six) in addition to the usual surgical precision from point guard Madi Swanson, who also had six. It was a bigger halftime lead than the Hornets even had in their famous December upset of the Gremlins in L’Anse.

“You could kind of read it in them, they were focused, they were hitting some big shots … we looked scared, we became tentative,” Filpus said.

Though Jurmu and Dillinger missed much of the second quarter, Rajala stayed in despite having two fouls, then picked up a third late in the half.

Hendrickson started the second half in her place as the Hornets attempted to overcome the absence of their chief rebounder and inside presence.

When the second half began, it looked much more like the second meeting between the two, a 76-41 thumping in Houghton Jan. 28. Jurmu scored on a 12-foot jumper 41 seconds in, the Gremlins also got buckets from Zenner, Dillinger and Kelsie Richards to take a 34-29 lead before the first mark was made in L’Anse’s side of the scorebook.

“The fast break points got us the lead, Syd’s long arms and Kelsie … everyone played great defense. We realized defense is what is going to get us the edge at the end of the game,” Jurmu said.

Rajala came back in midway through the rally but Houghton had taken the momentum. She scored L’Anse’s first basket of the second half, capping an exquisite pick-and-roll 5:18 in, but hers was the first and only Hornet field goal of the second half not scored by Swanson.

Filpus denied that Houghton’s defensive strategy was to take away the other Hornets and let Swanson get her points.

“This team is unique in the fact that we’re kind of lanky and we’re able to defend the passing lanes well and still be in a position to defend dribble penetration,” she said.

On the other end, Richards hit a series of mid-range jumpers to maintain Houghton’s lead. Zenner got in the act too and the Gremlins led 40-35 with a quarter to go.

“I was just mostly seeing it while the game was going on and taking advantage of it when I had the chance,” Richards said.

Swanson scored on a drive 24 seconds into the fourth, but the Gremlins stymied the Hornets time and time again, then cashed in at the free-throw line, where they went 7-for-10 in a game-clinching 9-0 run that ballooned the lead to 12.

“I don’t know what happened offensively, actually. It’s just I think they figured us out,” Lloyd said.

“They jammed the cutters, which we talked about doing, so we couldn’t get the ball in the paint. If you can’t get the ball in the paint, if everything happens on the perimeter, they’re a good ball-hawking team and then they’ll look to steal and deflect.”

Swanson led L’Anse with 17 points. The Hornets (13-8) will return their power trio of Swanson, Rajala and Ross, all juniors, for another run next season.

Houghton (20-2) finished with three scorers in double figures: Jurmu with 14, Richards 12 and Dillinger 11. Playing in their home gym, they could see exactly where “2013” will go on the wall next to an ever-growing string of years under the “District Champions” banner.

“It feels really good to be wearing orange and black tonight and just to represent our school and bring home the big win for us,” Richards said.