CHASSELL - With just over two minutes remaining in the Class D district final between Chassell and Lake Linden-Hubbell Friday night, the Panthers found themselves locked in a battle of wills with the Lakes as Chassell held a slim two-point lead.
Lake Linden sophomore studs Tyler Roose and Brett Poissant (game-high 24 points) were running through pick after pick, cutting and posting, looking for any opening to tie or overtake the hosts. For their part, the Panthers defense steadfastly refused to give any space to the LL-H duo, employing stifling pressure outside and a swarming double-team in the paint.
The seconds continued to tick off as Lake Linden searched for an answer.
The Chassell boys basketball team celebrates their Class D district title 51-49 over Lake Linden-Hubbell Friday night. It was the first district championship for the Panthers since 2002. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
The Lakes never found one.
And after Roose's final shot fell short, the nine-man Chassell squad exploded into a fury of hugs, chest bumps and high-fives on the heels of a 51-49 victory to give the Panthers their first district championship since 2002.
"This is indescribable," Chassell senior point guard Carson Ryynanen said. "Just the best, an awesome feeling. I don't even know how to describe it."
Lake Linden-Hubbell - 14 13 12 10 - 49
Chassell - 14 12 16 10 - 51
Lake Linden-Hubbell - Cody Kumpula 2, Brett Poissant 24, Tyler Roose 16, Konrad Klein 7; FTs: 3-5; Fouls: 10; Fouled out; none; Three-point field goals: Roose 1, Poissant 5.
Chassell - Brant Ryynanen 9, Josh Pietila 16, Carson Ryynanen 10, Jake Tuomi 2, Evan Huhta 18; FTs: 2-4; Fouled out: none; Three-point field goals: B. Ryynanen 1, Pietila 2.
"It is amazing, just a wonderful feeling and super rewarding," Chassell senior center Evan Huhta, who led the Panthers with 18 points, added.
Despite two straight losses by an 18-point margin to Lake Linden-Hubbell in Copper Country Conference play this season, Chassell coach Steve Spahn knew the Lakes - undefeated in conference play - were vulnerable Friday night if his team could execute two specific strategies.
One, Lake Linden ran through CCC play with a in-your-face full-court press, constantly turning turnovers into points and enjoying superior depth over every opponent. In the two wins over Chassell, the trapping diamond-and-one hurried the Panthers leading to the double-digit blowouts.
Spahn believe the answer didn't lie in a higher emphasis on ball security, but on attacking the Lakes right back.
By the Mining Gazette's unofficial account, Chassell got five layups in the first half alone Friday night at the expense of the Lake Linden press, as long passes up the court freed the Panther guards to attack the rim.
"We said yesterday in practice, 'Let's score on this thing,'" Spahn said. "It is a diamond press with four guys in the frontcourt, so let's get it pass them and get some 2-on-1s or whatever. Let's be aggressive and we did a great job of looking long for some layups."
Then on the defensive end, Spahn knew containing the explosive Roose was the only way to get a shot at dethroning the Lakes.
He tasked junior guard Jake Tuomi with bulldogging Roose all over the court, ignoring his help responsibilities.
The quicker Tuomi prevented Roose from getting looks at the rim and made him work for all 16 of his points.
"Jake is a really quick defender and he did a great job keeping Roose out of the paint tonight," Ryynanen said. "Roose is going to get his shots up, but Jake really made him work for it."
"Jake is a fantastic defender," Spahn added. "And the last time we played them he was playing regular defense where Roose would give up the ball and he would drop back into help. We told him tonight, 'you stay on him, you do not leave that kid.'"
Trailing by one point at half time, the Panthers got six points from Huhta on his favored mid-range jumper and four points from Ryynanen on slashes to the hoop to take a two-point lead heading into the final quarter.
Ryynanen added four more points - again by attacking the rim - and Tuomi added the decisive basket on an open layup to grant Chassell a four-point lead with just over three minutes to play.
The Panthers wouldn't score again, but Lake Linden still couldn't make up the difference.
"In the end, they did a better job of keeping the ball out of the hands of the guys we wanted to have it than we did of keeping it out of their top guys hands," Kumpula said. "You have to make the plays. And in the end, Ryynanen made the plays and we didn't quite find them."
"Carson is a great ballhandler and I thought he was very strong tonight," Spahn added. "He would give them that little hesitation and he got a layup a couple times and he knew when to comeback out. He was a huge factor tonight, even when he didn't score."
Amidst a plethora of impressive performances, Huhta's stood out not only with the production but considering the circumstances.
The 6-foot-6 senior missed school in the morning with a stomach virus and was battling fatigue all night.
He still found the energy for double-digit rebounds and a host of midrange jumpers though.
"I just had to suck it up," Huhta said. "I took a nap and got some food in my body, and just kind of pulled it together."