The ties that bind: Houghton, L’Anse end up even again after Gremlins tip Kings

HOUGHTON – Like any good gentlemen, Houghton and L’Anse let the ladies go first, then proceeded to end up knotted atop the WestPAC themselves.

Houghton did what it needed to become co-champions, fighting past a tough Calumet team down the stretch for a 55-47 victory.

“It was intense. We are so happy about it. That was our goal at the beginning of the season, as it was anybody’s, but ours especially and after our loss to L’Anse, we definitely knew what we needed to do, so we tried to come in and do it,” Houghton junior Nate Gockenbach said.

The Gremlins and Purple Hornets both finished 7-1 in league play, splitting the season series with wins in each other’s gyms, just like the girls. L’Anse clinched its share with a lopsided win at Hancock Tuesday.

“It’s a great win for our seniors, not only that, our whole team, because any time you play Calumet, you know you’re going to get a physical basketball game, you’re going to get a team that is going to play you really hard and when you can come out with a win that results in a share for the conference title, that’s a good feeling,” Houghton coach Jared Lawson said.

Houghton and Calumet rarely play one-sided games and Tuesday was no different. What was unusual is how fluid it was in the early going on the offensive end.

Calumet, which is averaging 47.7 points per game, racked up 31 in the first half alone. The Copper Kings particularly benefitted from forward Jake Pieti’s ability to find creases in Houghton’s zone defense and knock down mid-range jumpers. The senior scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half.

On the other end, senior guard Trent Keteri overcame a rough first quarter, making three triples in the second and scoring 11 of his 13 in the frame.

The result was a half without a major run either way, ending in a 31-27 Calumet lead.

“This team has been outstanding all year at just competing on every possession. We’ve got to get a little more consistent as far as taking care of the ball and some decision-making stuff maybe down the stretch, but these guys don’t give up on a possession,” Calumet coach Mike Ojala said.

The graceful flow of the first half quickly subsided after the break, as the teams combined for 12 points in the third quarter. Houghton got back to even for the first time since the early going by scoring three unanswered baskets, each about two minutes apart. The last, a 2-on-1 fast break finished by Keteri from Eero Niemela, tied it at 33 with 1:45 left. Gockenbach pulled up on the break for a long two just before the buzzer to make it 35-35 with a quarter to go.

Calumet leading scorer Paul Torola, despite heavy defensive attention all night, got enough of an opening to put Calumet in the lead with three minutes to go.

Gockenbach connected from the right elbow with about 2 1/2 minutes left, and on what proved to be the game’s decisive play, Torola lost control of the ball trying to fight through a Gremlin trap in the backcourt, Sam Bethancourt picked up it up and, while falling, scored and drew the foul, which gave Houghton the edge for good.

“You never expect to get a trap and a steal out of the press, you just want to ratchet up the pressure on a team and to get that at that point of the game, it was really important and not only for us, but for Sam too,” Lawson said.

Houghton got a stop, then a pair of Niemela free throws for a four-point lead, then converted 7-of-8 down the stretch (12 of 13 in the fourth quarter and 16 of 19 in the game) to ensure victory.

“We’ve got to keep teams off the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. Lake Linden beat us from the line, and these guys tonight,” Ojala said.

Provided they don’t get frozen out, both teams have games against U.P.-ranked teams as dress rehearsals for the postseason.

Houghton (13-5) travels to No. 2 Marquette Thursday, while Calumet hosts No. 4 Escanaba.

“Calumet’s always the toughest game on our schedule every year and beating a team like them is always good motivation for playoffs,” Keteri said.

Torola and Pieti co-led Calumet (12-7) with 16 points. Jack Hyrkas added 10.