All-Stars take a bow by the bridge

ST. IGNACE – A storybook season and a sterling career reached a special farewell here Saturday.

Sarah Cullip of St. Ignace and Brett Branstrom of Mid Peninsula ended their high school careers with a flourish, earning MVP honors at the 28th annual U.P. All-Star Classic basketball twinbill at LaSalle High School. The games are conducted by the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame, with proceeds helping fund a scholarship program for a quartet of U.P. athletes each year. Cullip was one of the 2013 recipients.

Cullip, playing on her home floor for the final time and just three months after helping the Saints win the Class D state basketball championship, led the South girls to a 62-53 victory over North in the opener. Then Branstrom, a two-time all-state Class D selection, helped the North boys upend South 94-81.

Branstrom, headed to Northern Michigan University on a basketball scholarship, also won the pre-game slam dunk title and finished second to Negaunee’s Tanner Uren in 3-point shooting. Branstrom scored 1,785 points in his career, tops among all Delta County players, and added 1,311 rebounds.

Branstrom had 21 points Saturday and had far more than the five rebounds he was given credit for in the stat sheet while playing under the direction of his brother-in-law, Negaunee coach Mike O’Donnell.

“That is a nice touch. It is the icing on the cake,” O’Donnell said of having media representatives select Branstrom as MVP in a highly competitive game in which several players stood out, particularly Uren, Marquette’s Mark Pap and Dillon Gordon of Ewen-Trout Creek.

“Everything I’ve seen from him (before), he did tonight. It was a lot of fun having him on our side,” O’Donnell said of Branstrom.

“I was impressed with the overall play on both sides,” said O’Donnell, who was assisted by his father-in-law, Mid Pen coach Mark Branstrom. “The two teams were really competitive. They were really going hard, and having fun at the same time.”

The South boys started strong before North forged ahead and led by about nine points throughout the two 20-minute halves.

“Our size advantage won out,” said O’Donnell, adding his team’s defense and overall shooting were also key factors.

“It was competitive from the get-go,” said O’Donnell, who noted his five reserves were impressed with the early-game performance of the South squad.

South coach Adam Mercier of North Central, knowing his squad was somewhat out-manned, said “we wanted to push the ball up the floor, but there was a lid on the rim for us. Their baskets probably came a little bit easier.

“Both teams played hard, both teams gave a full effort.”

Gordon, who will play at Michigan Tech, added 16 points and Pap, the MVP runner-up, had nine of his 17 points in the second half. Uren added 14.

Branstrom played for North to be with O’Donnell. Had he been with South, which would have been the usual alignment, it may have been a different outcome. Wade Schetter of Carney-Nadeau and Josh Hester of Cedarville had 12 points and Caleb Harrington of Kingsford and Curtis St. Louis of St. Ignace added 11. Schetter, C-N’s all-time scoring leader (1,561 points) and Branstrom will be NMU teammates and roommates.

“There were so many good players on the floor,” said Branstrom, who faced the toughest opposition he saw in five varsity seasons. “It took time to get in sync. I tried to stick to my game and it worked out nice for me.”

A short practice session Friday helped smooth out the kinks amongst a group of players who had just met. “It was a simple motion offense,” he said. “We got to know each other and build some chemistry in one day.”

Landing MVP was “really cool,” he said. “I may not be the best player, but I played well and it is a nice honor to get.”

Troy Kinnunen of Jeffers, the only Houghton County player, finished with three points.

While the North boys held the upper hand most of the game, the South girls rebounded in the second half to take control. Kylee Erickson of West Iron County hit consecutive 3-point baskets to bring North within 36-35 early in the second half. South, which had nearly doubled the lead in the first half, answered with a 17-2 outburst for a 52-37 game-deciding run.

“They had more aggression out of the gate,” Marquette coach Ben Smith said of South’s early burst. He said Carlee Benzie of Kingsford and Bailey Grayvold of Norway “were wired to guard you.”

Cullip had six of her 13 points in the second half to help South pull away. She also speared 15 rebounds and had three assists.

“I surely didn’t expect this,” said Cullip, who will run track and cross country at Grand Valley State. “My teammates made me look pretty good.”

She said the South girls quit throwing the ball away after a sluggish start to the second half. “We were a little more patient,” she said.

Earning MVP was sweet, but it does not compare to a state title, especially after playing a key role in this year’s crown after being a minor player on the 2011 state champs led by Nicole Elmblad, a starting guard at University of Michigan who gave a brief talk to the all-stars at Saturday’s breakfast at Mackinac Grille.

“We played well as a team all year (at St. Ignace). The payoff was in the end. You can’t beat that,” said Cullip.

Krysta VanDamme of Mid Peninsula, a late addition to the team who will play at St. Norbert College, added 10 points for North.

Nicole Bouwma of DeTour, who sprained her left ankle late in the game, had nine of her 11 points in the first half. She graduated after just three years in high school. Olivia Smith of Pickford added 10 points.

Kyra Lauzon of Manistique won the pre-game free throw contest and Sarah Madalinski of Bark River-Harris took the 3-point contest.

Among Copper Country girls, Chelsea Truscott of Ontonagon led with nine points. Jamie Dompier (Chassell) had eight and Zoey McGeshick (Ewen-Trout Creek) two. Houghton’s Blaire Zenner played but did not get into the scorebook.