Tech’s never Ben better

HOUGHTON – Kevin Luke believes that Ben Stelzer does not suffer through shooting slumps.

The Michigan Tech men’s basketball coach insists that if Stelzer’s shooting percentage drops over a period of games, it is a mirage. There is something wrong with the axis of the earth, not the junior guard.

An eccentric statement? Sure.

But if Wednesday’s quarterfinal performance over Grand Valley serves as any indication of what Luke sees on a daily basis, the veteran head coach can be excused for outlandish thinking.

Stelzer gave the 1,062 in attendance at the SDC a show they will never forget. Nor will Grand Valley.

The junior lit up the Lakers for a career-high 34 points, draining 8-of-10 threes – including his first five attempts in the game – with two absurd step-back jumpers and a three-pointer in the final four minutes to set the floor for Austin Armga’s heroics.

With the game tied at 72-72, Armga then finished the job, coolly canning a 15-foot pull-up on an isolation play to give the Huskies a two-point lead with 46 seconds remaining. Armga followed the shot with a loose-ball steal, and Stelzer’s four free throws ended the Lakers season 78-72, sending he Huskies to Findlay for a GLIAC semifinal match with Malone Saturday.

“That was unbelievable,” Armga said. “You can put five guys on him if he is hitting those shots and it won’t matter. We were so pumped for him, that was a game of the life time. We were just standing there in awe watching Ben go off. Unbelievable.”

“I was feeling pretty good by the end there,” Stelzer added. “It’s March Madness for a reason.”

Stelzer, named to the second-team All-GLIAC earlier in the week, had shot just 31 percent from three in his previous six games, including his two lowest point totals of the season.

Any confidence crisis was clearly solved by the final five minutes though, with Stelzer showing off a step-back (twice) that Allen Iverson thought was unfair.

“They were really trying to pressure us,” Stelzer said. “I had some opportunities to get to the hoop a bit, but I don’t have quite the first step Austin does, so I use those step-backs a little to clear some space.”

After Alex Culy’s rebound and pass to Stelzer gave the junior two more free throws with 10 seconds remaining, Stelzer let out a roar and pounded the ball in quick succession to a crowd in the midst of a standing ovation. Culy skipped gleefully down the court, facing the Husky faithful with his arms raised in triumph.

“I was just happy the game was finally over,” Stelzer said. “You try to keep your emotion in check, but there are times where you need to let a little bit out.”

Of course, all of Stelzer’s heroics would have been for naught without Armga’s shot-steal combo at the end.

The 15-foot pull-up – going left, off one dribble, as is Armga’s preference – made up for a mediocre shooting night that saw the senior finish with 14 points on 4-of-12 shooting in his final career game at the SDC.

“We have run that play, I don’t know, maybe once all year,” Armga said. “Yesterday in practice we were running it though. So coach called the play, I just had to make the shot. it’s probably not a secret anymore that I like going left.”

“That was as big as any shot I hit the whole game,” Stelzer added. “That was some mental toughness there, just Austin being Austin.”

The Huskies needed every bucket Stelzer could give them Wednesday night to survive in a contest that was overly-physical, even by GLIAC standards.

Grand Valley kept pace with the Huskies for 39 minutes – overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit in the process – thanks to 17 offensive rebounds as the athletic Lakers pounded Tech’s four-guard lineup on the glass, zone and man-to-man. Six-foot-7 power forward Chas Rollins led the way, netting 16 points with nine offensive rebounds on the night.

Only a steal from Troy Hecht with under two minutes to play and Armga’s clutch theft hindered the Lakers in crunch time.

“I have never seen anything like that,” Armga said. “Just trying to get open was a battle. The stuff they got away with. Wow. That was GLIAC playoff basketball.”

That physicality spilled everywhere on the defensive end as well, with Stelzer and Armga pushed, pulled, barred and every other pushing-the-envelope physicality edge Grand Valley defenders could think of.

It makes Stelzer’s 34 points even more impressive than meets the eye because after the initial three triples, Lakers coach Ric Wesley threw every scheme he could dream up to stop Stelzer at the Huskies. Five times Stelzer split double-teams or dribbled past aggressive defenders to pick up an assist.

“That was one of the things I thought was affecting my percentage a bit these last (six) games, just creating some more space with the screens,” Stelzer said. “I wanted to get better using those screens, catching the defense more off-guard.”

“He put us on his shoulders,” Luke added. “He would not let this team lose tonight. The one thing he did this week besides extra shooting was watch a lot of film. He is a guy you want to go to battle with.”