PAINESDALE - With their first Class D District Championship since 1984 on the line Friday night, the Lake Linden-Hubbell girls' basketball team displayed the skill and confidence to take an early lead and then the poise to hold off a desperate Baraga in crunch time.
With just under two minutes remaining, the Vikings knocked down two consecutive three-pointers and added a free throw to cut the deficit from 10 to three.
No matter. After killing some time with an effective four-corners formation, head coach Timm Gast's daughters Morgan and Erin sealed the title with four straight free throws - including two of the banked variety from Morgan - to set up an exuberant Lakes celebration as LL-H closed down Baraga with a 46-41 victory.
Lake Linden-Hubbell point guard Sarah Audette drives to the hoop with Baraga guard Shannon Fish defending in the second quarter Friday. Audette finished with a team-high 11 points. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
"Oh, I was nervous. I was just thinking 'I have to make these. We have to win,'" Erin Gast said. "I knew we were going to win, I knew it.
"This is just so great. You spend all day being nervous just thinking about it and then when you win at the end it is just so great."
"There was a gut check time when they hit those two threes," Timm Gast added. "But then we responded and hit a couple shots and put the pressure back on them and just rode it out. That is how you play these championship games."
Baraga 6 11 9 15 - 41
LL-Hubbell 12 13 9 12 - 46
Baraga - Tayrn Nurmela 2, Brittany Nieskes 12, Jenna Heikkinen 13, Shannon Fish 10, Katie Schjoth 3; FTs: 13-23; Fouls: 13; Three-point field goals: Nieskes 1, Heikkinen 1, Schjoth 1.
Lake Linden-Hubbell - Erin Gast 8, Sarah Audette 11, Abby Sutherland 6, Brooke Corrigan 8, Brittni Kisul 10, Morgan Gast 2, Kayla Goodell 1; FTs: 12-16; Fouls: 19; Three-point field goals: None.
The Lakes will meet traditional nemesis Forest Park, the No. 3 ranked Class D team in the state and the U.P., in a regional semifinal Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. ET at Kingsford High School.
It was the first district title in the lifespan of anyone on the team, but rather than add nerves to the tense proceedings, coach Gast believes it just sharpened his team's focus.
"They have had their eye on that banner in the Lake Linden gym since I think they were in seventh or eighth grade," he said. "It just means so much to them."
After taking a six-point lead in the first quarter, the margin fluctuated between four and eight points until the fourth quarter as the Lakes were never able to separate themselves nor could Baraga string together an impactful run.
LL-H sophomore point guard Sarah Audette gave the Lakes the breathing room they needed midway through the final period, however, sinking consecutive runners on quick drives to the hoop to give Lake Linden a 12-point lead. The Lakes were able to slow the pace of the game down from there and fend off Baraga's full-court pressure to lock up the trophy.
"I think we played better in the fourth quarter than we have ever played before," Erin Gast said. "We composed ourself so well and that is something we had trouble with during the regular season. But now that districts came we rose to the challenge and we did it."
"That is the key to Class D basketball, to get an early lead and then sustain it," Baraga coach Mariah Dunham added. "One basket here, free throws there and maybe it's different. A few missed layups ... but I credit Lake Linden. They played well and deserved it."
Audette led Lake Linden with 11 points, followed by post Brittni Kisul's 10 points and Erin Gast's eight.
Dribble penetration was the key for the Lakes as guard after guard drove and kicked until they found an opening. Baraga defeated LL-H 38-29 when they met in February but an efficient offense flipped the script Friday.
"(Audette) can see a lane to the basket and she doesn't need much space to fit," Timm Gast said. "She does that as well as anybody. ... I was really impressed with our balance tonight. We got contributions from everybody."
As her first year as the Baraga's girls coach, Dunham went out of her way to thank seniors Taryn Nurmela, Brittany Nieskes (12 points), Rebecca Larson, Shannon Fish (10 points) and Katie Schjoth.
"I just told my seniors that I am so proud of them and they are going to make great leaders in the world," Dunham said. "I am just happy to be a part of their lives."