PETOSKEY - Clinging to a four-point lead with a shade over three minutes to go, the Houghton Gremlins knew their best shot to stop the Shelby Tigers was simply not to give them the ball.
And so Houghton held the ball, forcing the Tigers to foul, and the Gremlins made enough free throws to hold onto the lead, advancing to the state final four with a 56-47 win over Shelby at Petoskey.
There was no doubt in Houghton coach Julie Filpus' mind of forcing the Tigers' hand, especially considering Class C all-state candidate Sydney Czurak's potency on offense.
Shelby point guard Abby Rodriguez (left) heads to the basket while Houghton’s Sydney Dillinger keeps pace during Tuesday night’s Class C state quarterfinal girls’ basketball game at Petoskey. The Gremlins defeated the Tigers 56-47 to advance to the state’s final four for the first time since 2006.
"What went into that decision is basically Czurak," Filpus said. "We were able to contain her but I didn't feel comfortable that we could shut her down. We felt we had the lead, so we'd hang onto it."
Hang onto it the Gremlins did, but not before missing the front end of two one-and-ones and making their fans sweat as Czurak tried to lead her team back. With 1:41 to go, Czurak hit a putback layup to pull the Tigers within 43-41. She had 24 points and 19 rebounds in another monster game in a season full of them.
However, Houghton had its own star to rely on - Elisa Jurmu, who led all scorers with 26 points.
Houghton 13 13 10 20 - 56
Shelby 10 14 13 10 - 47
Houghton - Johnson 6, Datto 1, Zenner 12, Richards 8, Jurmu 26, Dillinger 3; FT: 15-21; Fouls: 13; Fouled out: none; 3-point field goals: Johnson 2, Jurmu 1.
Shelby - Kinstner 2, Rodriguez 13, Brown 4, Czurak 24, Moore 4; FT: 6-11; Fouls: 18; Fouled out: Rodriguez; 3-point field goals: Rodriguez 3.
Jurmu decided to assert herself after those two early free-throw misses and put the game into her own hands.
"Elisa's been our leader all season long," Filpus said. "This is new for our kids and some of them got a little nervous. Elisa just said, 'Give me the ball. Let them foul me and I'm going to take over.' At that point, you could see it in her face."
Taking the hint from their leader, the Gremlins hit 14 of 19 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
The Gremlins surged into the lead early in the fourth partially thanks to an injury to Czurak, who came up limping out of a loose-ball scrum late in the third. The Tigers led by one after three.
Czurak, a senior, toughed it out through the injury, but it clearly affected her play, and Houghton used that to its advantage, attacking the post and moving quickly as it often does.
"You know, we stressed in the pregame that we wanted to run this team," Filpus said. "We felt their strength was setting up an offense and pounding it inside. We didn't know if they wanted to push the ball up the floor."
A key play came with about four minutes left, as Jurmu made an acrobatic shot off the glass while being fouled by Abby Rodriguez. The bucket capped a 7-0 surge by Houghton to start the fourth.
Czurak responded with a turnaround shot in the post with 3:20 to go, now looking more like herself. This prompted the Gremlins to make the decision to force Shelby to make the first move.
For her part, third-year Tigers' coach Sarah Wolting, who fell one game short of leading her team to the state final four for the first time since she was a senior on the team in 1997, said she thought Filpus' move was shrewd.
"I thought it was very smart to make us foul them," Wolting said. "If I were in that situation I'd probably do the same thing. They have a smart team, a team that can handle the ball, that makes good passes."
In addition to Jurmu's 26, senior forward Blaire Zenner had 12 ponits for Houghton, 10 of which came in the first half. She also played tough defense against the Tigers' larger front line.
For the Tigers, Rodriguez complemented Czurak's 24 with 13 points of her own, but only three came in the second half, as Houghton adjusted well to her early success shooting jumpers.
The Gremlins advanced to the state final four at the Breslin Center in East Lansing with the win, where they will draw Saginaw Nouvel Catholic, ranked fourth in the state. Nouvel defeated Delton Kellogg 57-37 in the Ithaca quarterfinal.
Filpus expressed pride in her team for achieving such an impressive milestone, especially with as little experience as the Gremlins possessed entering the season.
"You know, I thought they did an outstanding job," Filpus said. "We have a team right now where we've replaced five starters. In my coaching tenure, we've always retained two or three. I can't say enough about their ability to get to this level."