Chassell uses suffocating defensive pressure to advance to semifinals

Chassell’s Meg Hokenson goes for the steal against Gaylord St. Mary’s Emma Jo Cherwinski during a Class D quarterfinal in Sault Ste. Marie on Tuesday. Chassell won 58-41. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe (Ironwood))

SAULT STE. MARIE — First, it started in the Copper Country. Then, it eventually made its way to the U.P.’s best. Night after night, the Chassell Panthers’ perimeter defenders devoured the top guards from around the area as they succumbed to the relentless and suffocating Chassell pressure.

However, this was meant to be the Panthers’ biggest test, facing a pair of all-state caliber guards in Gaylord St. Mary’s Alex Hunter and Averi Bebble.

It was the No. 6 Panthers on a 24-game winning streak vs. the No. 4 Snowbirds, who had won their last 23, battling for a spot in the state semis — Let’s go. 

But this ended just like the others: a Chassell knockout. The Panthers limited Gaylord St. Mary to 28 percent shooting (13-46) to secure a 58-41 Class D quarterfinal victory Tuesday in Sault Ste. Marie to continue the deepest tournament run in school history. 

“When we looked at film, we basically said we had to tighten up the lane and make sure nothing gets in,” Chassell coach Brandi Hainault said. “We knew if we could shut down (Hunter) and (Bebble), we would win the game.”

Chassell celebrates after its 58-41 Class D quarterfinal win over Gaylord St. Mary in Sault Ste. Marie on Tuesday. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe)

Hunter and Bebble are names known throughout the state for their individual accomplishments. Hunter was an Associated Press First Team All-State selection last year after averaging 18 points and shooting 46 percent from 3, while Bebble guided her team to the regional title on Thursday with 26 points in the win over Cedarville. Together, those two combined for 40 of the team’s 61 points in that victory. 

But space and room to operate was limited for the senior backcourt against a Chassell defense that allowed just 32 points per game during the regular season and 43 this postseason. Anytime Bebble put the ball down on the floor, Chassell’s Meg Hokenson was there to cut off the driving lane. And when Hunter prepared to shoot from the perimeter, Jenna Pietila was there to throw a hand up and challenge the shot. 

Hunter finished 5 of 15 from the field for 13 points and Bebble was held to 10 points on 2 of 12 shooting.

“My coach always says that the lower peninsula gets more attention than we do,” Pietila said. “She said she thinks some of us might be all-state players, so we just try to go out there and prove it every time we step on the court.”

This Panthers team has been fueled by the phrase, “Prove it.” First, it was proving they’re the best in the local area — even with all the high expectations of a team that returned all of its rotation players. Then, it was proving themselves as the U.P.’s elite. Now, they’re doing it at the state level. 

Chassell’s Meg Hokenson slaps at the ball while Gaylord St. Mary’s Emma Jo Cherwinski is surrounded by Chassell’s Sophia Huhta, middle, and Sydney Danison during a Class D quarterfinal in Sault Ste. Marie on Tuesday. Chassell won 58-41. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe)

That chip on their shoulder they’ve been carrying was evident in their aggressive defensive start. The Panthers held Gaylord St. Mary without a field goal for the first 6:30 until a putback by junior Megan Loffer cut Chassell’s lead to 12-5.The Snowbirds shot just 1 of 10 in the first quarter before trailing 21-14 at halftime after making 4 of 21 shots while missing all six attempts from 3-point range. 

“We didn’t have anyone take over the first three quarters for us offensively,” Gaylord St. Mary coach Pat Schultz said. “We didn’t have a kid step up. When Averi tried to, it was a night when she really wasn’t on. Kind of didn’t have anyone who wanted to put the ball in their hands and do anything with it.

“We were preaching to them for three quarters to move the basketball. Stop trying to create so much off the dribble and let’s not bring ball screens to them because they’re hedging them, so we can’t do anything with it.”

Chassell struggled with Gaylord St. Mary’s own pressure, turning the ball over eight times in the first quarter before finishing with 11 miscues by halftime. But what the Panthers did have was a balanced and versatile scoring attack. 

Senior Sydney Danison scored the first six points for the Panthers while utilizing her 6-foot-1 size advantage before finishing with her sixth consecutive double-double in the tournament, 12 points and 10 rebounds. Then, senior Milly Allen was her typical clutch self, scoring 11 of her team-high 18 points in the second half. Junior Lela Rautiola chipped in 10 points while making all five of her shot attempts, including a corner jumper to push Chassell’s lead to 45-30 midway through the fourth quarter.

Chassell’s Milly Allen comes up with the ball against Gaylord St. Mary’s Emma Jo Cherwinski during a Class D quarterfinal in Sault Ste. Marie on Tuesday. Chassell won 58-41. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe)

Rautiola also connected on two layups following the Snowbirds’ 7-0 run that cut Chassell’s lead to 28-23 with 3:55 left in the third. The layups were a part of Chassell’s own 6-0 run that was capped by a free throw from Pietila for a 34-23 lead. That shut the door on the Snowbirds’ only rally in the second half.

“We just swing the ball until the shot is open,” Pietila said. “If there is pressure in the post on Sydney, we know to swing the ball and there’s going to be a shot open eventually. The ball moves faster than the feet can.”

As time wound down, Gaylord St. Mary turned up its pressure. But for the most part, the Panthers beat it and found layups as they made 11 of 17 shots in the second half. Total, they assisted on 12 of 19 made baskets while converting 50 percent of their shots for the game (19-38).

“Here’s the thing that surprised me the most and hurt us the most,” Schultz said. “I haven’t seen our guards get beat off the dribble a lot, but we’d get beat off the dribble, force our bigs to help, then they’d drop it off to a big for a layup … We couldn’t contain their guards, and that surprised me.”

Chassell (25-1) will now face Waterford Our Lady (19-4) on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Calvin College. Adrian Lenawee Christian (24-1) takes on Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart (25-0) in the 7:30 p.m. semifinal.  

– – –

GSM 5 9 11 16 — 41

Chassell 12 9 15 22 — 58

GSM — Myler 8, Bebble 10, Hunter 13, Maybank 2, Jeffers 6, Loffer 2. F: 23; Fouled out: Bebble; Free throws: 13-20; 3-point field goals: Hunter 2. 

Chassell — Pietila 6, Hokenson 6, Huhta 6, Allen 18, Danison 12, Rautiola 10. F: 16; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 18-30; 3-point field goals: Allen, Pietila.