Calumet boys surprise Esky
CALUMET – Calumet put a signature win on the bottom of its boys’ basketball schedule Thursday night, knocking off U.P. No. 4 Escanaba 49-44 Thursday in the regular season finale.
The Copper Kings, who’ll host their Class C district tournament starting Monday, came in having lost three out of their last four, all road games in which they ended up losing by single digits. Thursday, the way they nursed a first-half lead to the finish line with deliberate yet functional offense and tough defense may be as encouraging to them as the resume of the team they beat.
“I think it’s big in the fact that our seniors came out and got a big win against a good team in the final regular season game in this gym,” Calumet coach Mike Ojala said. “These guys have been playing good ball over the last couple weeks. We just haven’t done enough things in the fourth quarter to close out some games. Win or lose this game, I was pretty confident our kids would keep playing and we feel like we’re kind of a primed team for March right now with the way we’re doing things.”
Any postseason bid for the Copper Kings is going to require a lot of heavy lifting from seniors Paul Torola and Jake Pieti, and both delivered Thursday.
Both were 8-of-10 from the field, with Torola scoring a game-high 24 points and Pieti 17.
In addition to points in the book, Torola had to direct Calumet’s offense down the stretch while facing heavy pressure from an athletic Eskymo team trying to get back in front, while Pieti drew the tough defensive assignment on 6-foot-5 senior Brandon Robinette, holding him below his average to 10 points. The success of both was key to Calumet’s win.
“He’s had some big-time games this year and he’s had to deal with a lot of different defenses and a lot of different things that coaches and teams have thrown at him. Tonight was no different and I thought this might have been his best game of this season,” Ojala said of Torola.
Escanaba’s only previous losses were to Negaunee and Marquette, the top two Class ABC teams in the U.P., but coach Tracy Hudson was disappointed with his team’s execution and hustle Thursday.
“This could be the best thing for us. This could be a wake-up call for us,” he said.
“(Before the game) the last thing I told them before I went out of the locker room was this team had Houghton down by three with three minutes to go and should have won and they lost. (After the game) that was the first thing, I came into the locker room, and I said, ‘You know what, what I told you, you did not believe me.'”
Both teams came out strong offensively in the first quarter, combining for 35 points. Though the success rate settled down from there, Calumet still led 29-24 at halftime.
Torola scored on the first possession of the third quarter to give Calumet what would be its largest lead of the second half, seven.
Escanaba had one lead in the second half, after Ben Kleiman hit a pair of free throws with 6:13 remaining to put the Eskymos up 42-41, but after a patient possession over a minute in length, Torola hit Pieti inside for a bunny and the lead.
Neither side had a point for two minutes after that before Pieti scored one more time for a three-point edge.
Calumet then closed it out at the free-throw line in the final minute. Esky appeared close to a key 10-second call that would have given them the ball down four with 36 seconds to play, but instead Robinette committed his fifth foul and Torola made both free throws for a six-point lead.
“Even in the second half, I felt pretty good, I just felt like we were going to make that big run. We were wearing them down with our press, but they made enough plays down the stretch that they were able to pull it out,” Hudson said.
Sam Molnar led the 15-5 Eskymos with 18 points. Esky hosts rival Gladstone Wednesday in a Class B district semifinal.
Calumet (13-7) has Hancock Monday in the late (7:30 p.m.) semifinal of their Class C tournament.