L'ANSE - In the course of 32 minutes of girls' basketball, Houghton and L'Anse were separated by more than three points for less than four of them.
After a taut thriller, the Gremlins came out ahead 45-43 by the narrowest of margins: a shot made on their end and a shot missed on the other.
The prize for the winners was closing back to even with the Hornets in the league loss column and creating a tie in the season series between two of the U.P.'s top five teams - one that won't be broken this season.
Houghton players celebrate after the final buzzer of their 45-43 win at L’Anse Saturday afternoon. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"Our defense was huge for us tonight. We weren't hitting all the shots we wanted and our offense wasn't producing as much as usual, but our defense kept us in the game," said Houghton senior Elisa Jurmu, who led all scorers with 18 points.
The Gremlins got the last stop they needed. L'Anse, down two after a Houghton free throw miss, inbounded from under its basket with 11.6 seconds left. The Hornets got it down the floor with time to spare and leading scorer Madi Swanson emerged from a cluster of players with a two-point shot from top of the key, but it drew the back iron and Jurmu collected it as time expired.
Since L'Anse shocked the Gremlins 60-45 in Houghton Dec. 10, the Gremlins have averaged 67.7 points per game. There were no easy buckets Saturday and occasionally, the Gremlins made the easy ones look difficult.
Houghton 8 9 13 15 - 45
L'Anse 8 9 7 19 - 43
Houghton - Noelle Polakowski 2, Ashlyn Kero 6, Sydney Dillinger 8, Kelsie Richards 7, Elisa Jurmu 18, Sloane Zenner 2, Morgan Farrell 2; FT: 14-18; Fouls: 10; Fouled out: none; 3-point field goals: Kero 1.
L'Anse - Maddie Etelamaki 8, Madi Swanson 6, Valerie Rajala 9, Abbey Hendrickson 3, Alyssa Norback 2, Kelsey Ross 13, Jackie Lister 2; FT: 4-7; Fouls: 13; Fouled out: none; 3-point field goals: Ross 3.
"We picked a bad night to have a terrible offensive performance. Our girls know it's unacceptable to shoot as poorly as we did, but we do have to give them credit in the last four minutes for delivering at the line and making some key baskets," Filpus said.
Houghton was 15-of-57 from the field and just 1-of-13 from 3-point range despite averaging five triples a game in their last four contests.
In a 43-43 game, Kelsie Richards scored what would be the winning basket with 36 seconds left by carving out space inside and putting her shot up before the Hornet defender could come over. The Gremlins pounded the paint relentlessly all game and it paid off. Each of their last four field goals came on a drive to the basket or other interior move.
"We got some and-ones that were huge, we hit our free throws and we knew we just had to keep being aggressive, because eventually they would fall," Jurmu said.
A three from Maddie Etelamaki that would have given L'Anse the lead on the following possession didn't go, and after the miss at the buzzer, coach Scott Lloyd noted how much more L'Anse had to rely on jump shots.
"We like to attack the paint, but against a bigger team you don't get a whole lot out of it unless you can get all the way to the rim. They kept a girl back, we never got all the way to the rim," he said. "We only shot seven free throws in the game and only made four of those. We didn't get to the paint as much as we generally do, but their defense had a lot to do with that."
Putbacks weren't much of an option either, as Houghton controlled the glass by, according to its count, a 31-17 margin after getting outrebounded at home by the smaller Hornets in the first encounter.
Through a first half in which nerves appeared to hinder scoring on both sides of the floor and a second half that was more efficient but just as close, there was a total of 15 lead changes and nine ties.
"It came down to everybody had the players they wanted on the floor at the time they wanted them on the floor and I think both sides played really hard basketball," Lloyd said.
L'Anse was led by Kelsey Ross's 13 points, including three triples. Valerie Rajala added nine points.
Long-limbed Sydney Dillinger drew most of the assignment on Swanson, holding her to six points (a third of her average) and scoring eight herself.
The Hornets, now 11-2 overall and 2-1 in the WestPAC, have a three-game week ahead in which they'll play league road games at West Iron County (tonight) and Hancock (Thursday). They'll also host Negaunee, the only other team to beat them this season, on Tuesday.
Houghton (14-1, 5-1 WestPAC) has two road games this week, but the first is a doozy: undefeated and U.P. No. 1 Marquette tonight.
But no rubber match between the Gremlins and Hornets is on the schedule, as the teams are different classes and cannot meet in the postseason.
"It would be great. We have to move on. We have some very important games coming up. It would be nice to see them again for the rubber match, but that won't happen this year," Filpus said.