Solid teams, two survive in regional
NEGAUNEE — Area basketball fans are quite familiar with the Rapid River and Carney-Nadeau boys’ basketball teams.
But what about Ewen-Trout Creek and Dollar Bay?
We just don’t see the Panthers or the Blue Bolts because they don’t come down to these parts due to scheduling reasons etc.
So the time to see them is at the Class D regional tournament when they face the Central U.P. squads. It was a treat watching all four teams put it on the line Monday night in the regional semifinals before a large boisterous crowd at Negaunee’s Lakeview Memorial Gym.
These were four good teams going at it in a pressure-cooker environment. And on this night, I’d say the two best teams survived.
The Wolves withstood a late rally by the Panthers to pull out a 51-45 win in the first semifinal and the Blue Bolts fought off the Rockets for a 63-60 victory in the nightcap.
In the opener, the Panthers took the court ranked No. 2 in the U.P. and No. 5 in the final AP state poll. I was interested to see how “Ewen-Trout-Witt” would do against the surging unranked Wolves.
There is a conception the Panthers are basically a one-man team led by talented 6-foot-7 senior Jake Witt, a Michigan Tech-bound big man who averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds during the regular season. Witt came to play Monday and scored 27 points in the final game of his prep career.
On this night, Witt needed some scoring help. Junior Eli Nordine stepped up to contribute 10 as this duo produced 37 of their team’s 45 points.
Still, I was impressed with the young Panthers, who start a sophomore, freshman and eighth-grader. They showed good mental toughness and turned up the defensive pressure while shrinking the Wolves’ 16-point lead in the fourth quarter to a four-point deficit with under a minute.
The Wolves had enough composure to seal the six-point win and relied on their balanced team concept and aggressive defense to prevail.
Preston Lauscher had 17 points, followed by Jason Kirschner with 13 points and Brett LaFord with 10.
Kirschner came off the bench and drilled three 3-pointers in the second quarter as Carney built a 14-point lead halftime lead. He said the Wolves had to play the team concept on both ends of the court, especially with Witt on the floor.
“We’re a family.” Kirschner said. “We don’t care who scores as long as somebody is doing something. It’s somebody different every game.
“Witt’s tough,” he added. “He gets a lot of rebounds. It’s hard to keep him under control.”
In the nightcap, regional favorite Dollar Bay took the court with 23 straight wins, the No. 1ranking in the U.P. and No. 2 ranking in the state.
The Blue Bolts made a statement early with a 10-point lead after one quarter and eight-point lead after three quarters.
Devin Schmitz, Dollar Bay’s all-time leading boys’ scorer, was money with an impressive 26-point showing.
The Blue Bolts are equally impressive with their team concept and how they move the basketball around and through the defense.
Still, Rapid River didn’t back down against a team that has buried many others this season.
They were down eight points early in the fourth quarter and came charging back behind Jarrett LaCasse, who drilled a pair of 3-pointers from the left wing to get the Rockets back in the contest.
Lucas Sundling led the Rockets with 21 points and Cameron Willemsen scored nine points.
Not much separated Rapid River and Dollar Bay — except free throws. When crunch time came in the fourth quarter, the Blue Bolts made 9-of-12 free throws and the Rockets hit 1-of-5 (3-of-10 for the game).
Senior leader Logan Hardwick was asked afterwards how good of a team Dollar Bay was?
“They move the ball really well,” said Hardwick, who capped his prep career with nine points. “With Devin at point, he’s a really good basketball player. They are all solid. Their starting five is solid.”
Is Dollar Bay the best team the Rockets played this season?
“Hmm, pretty darn close,” he said. “Maybe either Munising or Bark River, pretty close.
“It was a tough loss. There’s not much to say. We gave it our all.”
And so the stage is set for Wednesday’s title game at 7 p.m. in Negaunee. It’s two good teams, but only one will advance to the quarterfinals in Escanaba.