Gremlins complete a clean sweep

HOUGHTON – The 2013 postseason is officially all orange, all the time.

Houghton completed a trifecta of local postseason tournament victories Friday in the Class C district boys’ basketball final, holding off Ironwood 56-48.

“We worked really hard for this, we deserve it and … back to work tomorrow,” Houghton point guard Ryan LaBerge said. The junior led all scorers with 22 points and confidently navigated his way through the Ironwood defense all night.

Houghton last ran the table this way in the 2003-04 school year, taking the girls’ basketball districts in the fall, hockey regionals and boys’ basketball districts in the winter.

The Gremlins (14-7), who played a Hancock team without its best player Wednesday in the semifinals, drew an Ironwood team without its best player Friday, as All-U.P. junior Adam Mackey could not play after suffering a foot injury in Wednesday’s first semi against L’Anse.

The Red Devils went through an adjustment period without their star, falling behind by 14 with 2:04 to play in the first half. But they went on a 10-0 run early in the third quarter and closed to within three, only for a momentum shift to give Houghton enough push to re-establish a lead ultimately to prove insurmountable.

“At certain points in the game, I think they had more poise than us. I think we had a case of the nerves without Adam being there. At times, we missed inside shots, turnovers here and there, getting after the ball. As the game progressed, especially in the second half, we adjusted to that and the kids got over their nervousness and they played better the second half,” Ironwood coach Pete Lewinski said.

The early advantage was particularly important for Houghton given its dependence on creating disorder in its opponent through defensive pressure. Not only was Ironwood forced to compensate for Mackey’s missing 18 points and nine rebounds per game, but it was forced to play from behind in its biggest game of the year.

“Ironwood’s a streaky shooting team, so once they get started they’re bombing. You saw we were up by 15 at one point, they came out and hit three or four threes in a row and they’re already in the game. Being ahead played a big role,” Houghton senior Zack Ohtonen, who played as a freshman on the Gremlins’ last district title team in 2010, said.

Houghton, meanwhile, came out blazing from the start, drilling six three-pointers in the first half with two apiece coming from LaBerge and Mike Saari.

After the break, Ironwood looked more aggressive offensively and followed with its 10-point run, closing to within three on Denver Sharrow’s putback at the 4:03 mark.

The Gremlins were up four and inbounding from the corner under their own basket when the referee next to Ohtonen, the inbounder, blew his whistle and signaled a five-second violation. The official on the opposite side of the court came in and said the Gremlins had called timeout from the bench before the whistle blew and after a lengthy conference for the three-person crew, the timeout was awarded. Houghton had a chance to reset, while Ironwood’s bench vehemently disagreed with the call.

“It kind of shifted the focus away a little bit from what Ironwood was doing there at that time. It allowed our guys, I think, to relax a little bit, get into that timeout and kind of refocus on what we want to do. We went out and got a bucket right after that. Those are critical points in the game because as we all know, in district tournament and regional tournament, momentum is a big factor,” Houghton coach Jared Lawson said.

Trent Keteri scored Houghton’s first field goal in six minutes of play on the ensuing possession as the Gremlins finished the quarter with an 11-0 run, 10 of which (including a free throw after a technical foul on the Ironwood bench) came in the two minutes succeeding the timeout.

“We thought we had the five, we had the momentum going and the momentum shifted back. They made the call and we can’t do anything about it,” Lewinski said.

The Red Devils fought back, with Sherrow hitting four of his five threes in the fourth quarter, but never got closer than six.

LaBerge led the Red Devils (18-4) with 17 points. Bryant Rowe added 15. Both they and Mackey will return for another run, but Lewinski admitted it’s a long way to next March.

“That’s good, but you’ve got to get them through the football season and you’ve got to get them through the basketball season. We’ve had an outstanding season, starting the 21st game we didn’t have a single injury all year. And the 21st game, we go down with a key injury, so you never what’s going to happen. Sometimes, fate, luck or whatever,” he said.

Houghton advances to Monday night’s regional semifinals at Escanaba High School where it will face a 7-13 Norway team expected by even fewer people to make it than the Gremlins.

“Since the end of the year, we’ve kind of rode this momentum a little bit and that’s what you need at tournament time. You look at Norway and I think they’re exactly the same way. I think we’re both teams that weren’t kind of expected to be there and we’re riding the momentum we have right now into tournament time,” Lawson said.