Quick start propels Dollar Bay past E-TC in battle of undefeated teams

Dollar Bay’s Devin Schmitz shoots over Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jake Witt Wednesday at the Wood Gym. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe (Ironwood))

HOUGHTON — As the public address announcer asked fans to move in closer to make space for others making their way inside the Wood Gym, the members of the Dollar Bay Blue Bolts who sport a reasonable vertical attempted to slam the ball through the rim during pregame warmups. They failed, but the energy from the 3,276 in attendance created one of the most electric atmospheres in the history of the U.P., so you’ll forgive adrenaline beating out common sense from a bunch of teenagers. 

“They always like to dunk. They’re a bit of posers in that regard,” Dollar Bay coach Jesse Kentala joked. 

In that regard, yes. But there is no doubting Dollar Bay as a quality basketball team. Not after the Blue Bolts defeated the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Ewen-Trout Creek, 51-42 in a Copper Mountain Conference game at the Wood Gym, Wednesday, in an event the area will not soon forget. 

By tipoff, fans who didn’t have a seat were forced to sit on the floor behind the baseline. People came from as far as Ironwood and Bark River to watch the two top-ranked teams in the U.P. collide. The outcome was always going to be decided by who could handle this kind of stage. And immediately it was evident, as the senior-laden Blue Bolts (12-0, 8-0) transferred the same energy from their failed dunk attempts into a 6-0 run in the first 2:30 of the game.  

“They were jacked,” Kentala said of his players. “They had answers to my pregame questions before I even threw it out there. They knew the gameplan, and they knew what we were going to do. We threw the first punch.”

Offensively, that meant getting out and running in transition before 6-foot-7 E-TC senior Jake Witt could set up to protect the rim. That aggressive mindset dominated the first half and allowed the Blue Bolts to make 13 of 27 shots for a 30-13 halftime lead. Senior Jacob Iacono led the way, finishing with a team-high 16 points. 

Iacono converted two putbacks on back-to-back possessions for a 21-9 advantage midway through the second quarter before making a layup in transition for a 30-12 lead with 1:40 remaining in the first half.

“Our mentality was to just push,” Iacono said. “We weren’t afraid to go inside on Witt, and that showed that we could do good things inside.”

Not much good happened for E-TC in the opening 16 minutes. The Panthers made just 4 of 19 shots (21 percent) in a half coach Brad Besonen said went as badly as it could have. Hesitation and second-guessing was the theme for E-TC as the team appeared to struggle with playing on such a large stage. 

“We were just in a fog and the ball wasn’t moving,” Besonen said. “Tried to take two timeouts early to wake up and get with the program, but it still didn’t happen in that first half.

“We were a deer in the headlights a lot. It wasn’t even because of pressure … We just kind of froze the ball and didn’t attack. Missed early shots and stopped looking. It was ugly offense in the first half.”

Dollar Bay stuck with its man defense in an attempt to limit Witt. Senior Brandon Thompson played on Witt’s hip while extending an arm across Witt’s body to deny the post-entrance pass. When E-TC threw the ball to the wing, the Dollar Bay wing defender dropped down on Witt to make it even more difficult to allow an entrance pass. 

Witt finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks and scored nine of the team’s 13 first-half points, but Kentala was pleased with how the team was able to limit his touches.

“We knew they had some young guards, so our thought was two-fold. You’re never going to stop Jake Witt, but you have to limit and contain him,” Kentala said. “That’s by having back-side help on the catch. Or when he was on the perimeter, when he put the ball down, we were quickly coming with the double. We weren’t going to bring three (defenders); we were going to bring two and bring them quick, and we helped off the correct guys.”

At times, E-TC’s guards were left so wide open, the Panther faithful would scream, “Shoot!” But E-TC could not make Dollar Bay pay and made just 1 of 9 attempts from 3 in the first half. 

And then the second half began and the E-TC team that started the season 13-0 finally showed up. 

Sophomore Cole Borseth scored a layup, freshman Tommy Cousineau made a 3 and Witt slammed home his only dunk of the night for a 7-0 E-TC run to start the second half. The capacity crowd had a ballgame. 

“The big change in the second half was we just talked to them about getting the ball and going against their press,” Besonen said. “When we got a rebound or steal, we went and I didn’t think Dollar Bay did a good job of transitioning into the defense in the halfcourt set when we did it that way.”

Kentala called timeout after Witt’s slam had the 3,000-plus buzzing. But third-quarter runs have been a signature for Dollar Bay all season — on average the team outscores opponents 20-9 in the third — and the Blue Bolts responded with a 13-2 run that included two 3s from junior Brendan LeClaire and a 3 from Thompson for a 43-22 advantage. 

Thompson would swish a 3 at the buzzer to answer a 3 from E-TC junior Eli Nordine to give Dollar Bay a 46-30 lead and all the momentum heading into the fourth quarter.

“They had all the big answers,” Besonen said. 

But E-TC (13-1, 6-1) made one final run, and Witt proved to those who came to watch him that he’s one of the premier players in the state. He converted a putback as he out-jumped everyone at the rim for the first points of the quarter, and then swatted a shot on the other end of the floor. After the block, he swished a 3 off the catch at the top of the key. And on the Panthers’ next possession, he knocked down a midrange wing jumper over his defender for a 7-0 run of his own, cutting Dollar Bay’s lead to 46-37. 

“Second half, we needed to change something, so being aggressive was one of those things I thought I needed to change,” Witt said. 

E-TC would cut Dollar Bay’s lead to 48-42 on a transition 3 by Nordine on the right wing with 5:18 left in the fourth. But the Panthers would not score again — they closed the game 0 of 4 from the field and had a turnover — as Dollar Bay was content to run the majority of the clock out. 

A shot off a pump fake at the rim by Dollar Bay senior Devin Schmitz gave him 13 points and made it 50-42 with 2:32 remaining in the game. After the basket, a portion of the crowd started to file out in order to beat the traffic. 

“It was unbelievable,” Kentala said of the win. “I liked the intensity at which we played at. I liked the poise we had shooting the ball; it’s something we haven’t seen. I like the way we responded on the big stage.

“These are great memories that these kids will have forever.”

Dollar Bay made 21 of 51 shots for the game (41 percent) and was 7 of 23 from 3 (30 percent). The Blue Bolts held a 32-28 edge on the boards.

E-TC was 15 of 42 overall (36 percent) while making 5 of 21 attempts from 3 (24 percent). 

Next up, Dollar Bay hosts Ontonagon Friday at 7:15 p.m. E-TC welcomes Republic-Michigamme at 7:20 p.m. on Tuesday. 

– – – 

E-TC 9 4 17 12 — 42

Dollar Bay 15 15 16 5 — 51

E-TC — Cousineau 3, Nordine 13, Cole Borseth 2, Jaden Borseth 4, Witt 20. F: 13; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 7-9; 3-point field goals: Nordine 2, Cousineau, Jaden Borseth, Witt. 

Dollar Bay — LeClaire 9, Thompson 9, Schmitz 13, Janke 4, Iacono 16. F: 14; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 2-7; 3-point field goals: LeClaire 3, Thompson 3, Iacono.