1 the loneliest number
HOUGHTON – Sometimes, basketball just does not make sense. Sometimes, basketball can be cruel.
The Michigan Tech men’s basketball team had a chance to score a monumental win Saturday over GLIAC-leading Lake Superior State as Austin Armga took to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with the Huskies trailing by a point and two seconds remaining in the game.
A senior, Armga shoots 85 percent from the free throw line, ranking No. 9 in the nation for players with at least 100 attempts. He has already demonstrated his clutch chops at least once this season, hitting the game winning shot and game-sealing free throws in a December win at Hillsdale.
But sometimes, basketball just does not make sense.
Armga’s first attempt bounced softly off the rim for an in-and-out, and Laker Derek Billing secured the rebound and a 79-78 victory for Lake State.
“I was just trying to keep my head blank,” Armga said. “I know I missed two earlier in the game (going 8-for-11 from the line), and I missed them a little short so I may have been getting tired. So I just wanted to not think and let it go. I put it up and it bounced in-and-out. I have shot a million of those in my life, but we lose.
“I’m in the locker room after, and its hard not to get emotional, so I’m sitting there with my head down and the whole team comes and pats me on the back,” Armga added. “They’re saying, ‘It’s alright, we got this, it’s not my fault that we lost. That is our team coming together. We have to build from here.”
Players and coaches agreed after the game that Armga is the No. 1 guy they wanted in that position.
They want him there next time too.
“He is the guy you want on the line,” junior Ben Stelzer said. “Everybody has all the confidence in him. everybody has his back.”
“He is crushed right now, and unfortunately, that is what sport does,” Tech coach Kevin Luke added. “But it builds character, and you can feel sorry for yourself or you can bounce back and get them (today).”
While Armga’s miss may have been the final play, there was a scoresheet full of critical ones leading up to it.
Neither team led by more than three points over the final eight minutes while the lead changed 12 times in the game.
Armga (28 points) gave Tech a two-point lead with a pair of free throws after a hard drive and 1:52 to play. Lake State’s bruising Cameron Metz answered with a contested layup at the other end.
Stelzer then made what may have been the shot of the game, curling off a pair of screens to knock down a three that seemingly touched every part of the rim before dropping in.
Again though, Lake State answered as Alex Williams pump-faked past Stelzer and swished a triple of his own.
Tech responded for a third consecutive time, with Luke Heller snaring an offensive rebound and putback to grant the Huskies a 78-76 lead with 20 seconds to play.
Billing came back with an old-fashioned three-point play, hitting a floater from the baseline and drawing a foul on Heller as he came over to cut the drive off.
Armga earned his trip to the free-throw line with an aggressive split of a double team, but the run of excellence ended there.
“It was a few stops here or there,” Stelzer said. “People might remember the free throw, but I missed a close out that gave up the (Williams) three.”
“I feel we should have won, we should have won big,” Armga added.
In a game with those razor margins, almost anything can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Tech played the entire first half in a triangle-and-two defense designed to keep the ball out of Billing’s and Williams’ hands.
While it may have slowed Billing, the Lakers adjusted quickly and shot 61.5 percent from the field to grab a 43-40 halftime lead. The Huskies abandoned the defense in the second half.
“We wanted to confuse them whether or not to run their man offense,” Luke said. “And if we had just gotten a couple of stops, I think it may have been effective. But as it was, I don’t think it was effective.”
The response to the defeat will be critical in determining where Tech’s season goes.
The Huskies are tied for third place in the GLIAC North Division, trailing Lake State by two games and Northwood by one. Tech plays at Lake State Feb. 22.
With Northern Michigan in Houghton today, Luke expects to see a team resolved, not one lost in what could have been.
“I’m not the kind of guy to go sulk,” Armga said. “We still have a chance in this league, so I’m going to think about this for about 10 more seconds and then get back in the gym. We have a game (today).
“This is a big jump for us, we can get down on ourselves and have a crappy practice, or we can take it the other way and come back at it hard. I am going to get in here and shoot about 6,000 free throws.”