Armga gets creative as Tech men beat UMD

HOUGHTON – With reigning GLIAC Player of the Year and former center Ali Haidar graduated, the Michigan Tech basketball team knew they would be relying on guards Ben Stelzer and Austin Armga for the majority of their point production this season.

But that didn’t mean they would be completely abandoning the post-touches that were so efficient with Haidar.

Making use of the Armga’s extreme versatility, the Huskies repeatedly threw the ball to Armga on the block or cleared out the wing and let him get to work Saturday in the season opener against Minnesota-Duluth.

The senior responded with 29 points – tied for a career high – on 12-of-19 shooting as Tech overran Duluth 78-58.

By an unofficial count, the 6-foot-3 Armga received the ball in the true post seven times Saturday, hitting five of six shots and drawing a non-shooting foul in the seven possessions.

“He is so versatile,” Tech head coach Kevin Luke said. “If he has a big guy (defending him) we just pull him outside. If they go to a guard, we go inside. They were switching, so it was a bit of everything. He is a handful in there, and that’s how we are going to score in the post (this season).”

“It is going to look a little different (than Haidar),” Armga said with a smile. “A little more finesse-esque.”

Where Haidar did his damage with pure strength, a textbook drop step and a nice touch around the rim, Armga makes use of superior quickness, footwork and ability to elevate on his shot.

Twice he forced defenders into an overplay and responded with a jaw-dropping spin move. The rest of the time he was able to maneuver his way within five feet of the rim before clearing space with a little fadeaway.

“It is really incredible actually,” Tech freshman Jason Hawke said. “He is a really special player because you don’t see that very often with a guy his size. The way he just rises on his shot makes him so tough to guard, especially down low.”

The new post game had been a weapon Luke was trying to keep secret before the season opened, but Armga had a chance to deploy his new freedom on a friend well aware of his abilities.

Duluth started senior guard Jordan Reetz (three points, 1-for-6 shooting), a former Husky who spent his first two years in Houghton and was part of Armga’s recruiting class. With the Bulldogs’ switching defense, Reetz and Armga went mano e mano on several possessions, decidedly in Armga’s favor.

“We can be all buddy-buddy off the court, but once you get on the court the competition is even higher,” Armga said. “You see him and you know that we have a history. We lived together in the dorms for a whole year, and we always want to get the best of each other. That’s what the best competitors do.”

Duluth started the game hot, taking a 14-7 lead in just under five minutes after Reetz’s lone field goal of the contest.

A timeout from Luke – and a few choice words about defending – helped spur the Huskies on, however, as they ran off nine straight points to take the lead.

Active hands and quick feet made the difference defensively, with the Huskies forcing 16 turnovers total (seven steals) and allowing just four Duluth free throw attempts in the first half as Tech avoided the new hand-checking foul trouble that has reared across college basketball.

Senior guard Alex Culy starred in particular, with three steals and two drawn charges.

With a small starting lineup – 6-foot-3 Troy Hecht and 6-foot-6 Luke Heller manned the post spots Saturday – the Huskies will need more of the same going forward to compensate for lack of size.

“No matter who you put in your lineup, there is a give and take,” Luke said. “So without that big post guy down there, we are a bit quicker and need to take advantage of that.”

With a 14-point lead entering halftime, the Huskies put the game in cruise control over the final 20 minutes, with Armga and Stelzer (18 points, 5-of-15 shooting) responding whenever Tech needed a basket.

The lead allowed Luke to get ample playing time for freshmen Hawke (27 minutes) and Connor McLeod (18 minutes).

Hawke, a 6-foot-5 true freshman, will play a pivotal role this season as the natural ‘3’-man will often be asked to hold serve at the ‘4’ with junior forward Phil Romback sidelined indefinitely.

Hawke filled the stat sheet nicely Saturday with nine points (3-of-6 shooting), four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.

He was relieved just to get the first game under his belt.

“I was pretty nervous before, especially when the band started coming in, that’s when I really got nervous,” Hawke said. “But once I actually got in there, it was good. the first shot going down helps get rid of the nerves for sure.”