Copper Kings edge Esky by a point

ESCANABA – Dena Fedell’s varsity coaching debut turned into a nailbiter Tuesday night as the Escanaba girls dropped a 54-53 basketball decision to the Calumet Copper Kings.

Junior Tristan Baranowski sealed the verdict in the closing moments by stopping an inbound pass and denying the Eskymos a chance at a last-second shot.

“On the last play, we knew they wanted to get the ball into (junior center) Michelle LaFave,” said Calumet coach Don Hill. “Tris read the pass well and made a great play on it.”

Junior Lexie Rowe, an All-Upper Peninsula Class A-B-C First Team selection a year ago, hit the game-winner on a 12-foot jump shot with nine seconds remaining, setting the stage for Esky’s last-gasp effort.

“Lexie is very athletic and we’re going to lean on her a lot this year,” said Hill. “It’s great to see her want the ball in that situation.”

Esky had taken a 53-52 lead with 38 seconds left in this non-conference match-up when LaFave, also an All-U.P. pick last season, drove the baseline for a layup. The Eskymos, however, were unable to keep the upper hand.

“I’m very happy with our play,” said Fedell. “Last year, we got beat by nearly 30 points (54-25) on this floor and by quite a bit (51-37) up there by a team that didn’t lose anybody this year. Now that we got all the butterflies out, I think we’re going to be fine this year.”

LaFave, receiving plenty of defensive attention, started the fourth quarter with a 22-foot set shot from the left wing to pull Esky within 41-40.

The Eskymos then gained a 42-41 lead on their next possession on five-foot set shot from the baseline by senior guard Ashley Cook.

Calumet regained the lead (44-42) on a 20-foot set shot from the right corner by sophomore Clara Loukus.

A 19-foot set shot from the left wing by senior guard Sydney Gafner, however, pulled the Eskymos even at 44 with 5:55 remaining.

The Copper Kings responded with six unanswered points, gaining a 50-44 cushion on a layup by junior center Ellen Twardzik with 2:49 remaining.

“Ellen had been out with two ACL injuries the past couple years,” said Hill. “She played more tonight than I expected her to. She stepped up and took care of business.”

But Esky didn’t go away, climbing within 50-49 on a short jumper by LaFave with 1:52 left and setting the stage for a hectic finish.

“The girls really stepped it up,” said Fedell. “We were able to break their press, although we could have been a little more patient once we got past their press. I’m pleased to see the girls never gave up. Only, we need to work on reading the floor.”

Both teams struggled from the floor early, with Esky hitting just 5-of-28 shots in the first half. The Eskymos finished 15-of-28 from the free throw line and Calumet was 14-of-22.

“In the first half, we did well with free throws,” said Fedell. “Then, we didn’t hit from the line in fourth quarter and they hit their shots. We were cold from the floor in the first half, and I think much of that had to do with opening night jitters.”

Rowe finished with 15 points. Twardzik had 11 points and 12 boards and junior Abby Bjorn collected 10 rebounds, including nine in the second half.

Everybody scored for the Copper Kings, who held a 47-37 rebounding advantage.

“We had good balance,” said Hill. “Abby had some big rebounds which kept possessions alive for us. One thing we need to work on, though, is our transition defense. We gave up too many layups.”

LaFave finished with 16 points and 17 boards. Cook had 11 points and senior guard Lynsey Collins added nine.

“They were constantly hanging on Michelle down low, but the other girls have to recognize that and step up,” said Fedell. “She needs to be inside. Only, she didn’t get a lot of opportunities tonight because she had so many people defending her. Lynsey is quick and I thought she, Ashley and Sydney (Gafner) did a real good job. Sam Connor and Tara Strahl will split time (at center). Situations will dictate when they play.”

Calumet, which also won the JV game (52-41) and freshman contest (52-48 in overtime), hosts Dollar Bay Friday. Esky travels to Sault Ste. Marie Saturday.