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Braves boys hold off Gremlins to advance

Houghton’s Isaiah Lawson attempts a 3-pointer during a Division 2 District 33 quarterfinal game against Gladstone Monday at the Gladstone Gym. (Mitch Vosburg/For the Gazette)

GLADSTONE — Behind a stingy defensive showcase and a 23-point performance from senior Drake Johnson, Gladstone boys’ basketball lives to play at least one more game in the 2023-24 season

The Braves toppled the Houghton Gremlins 57-39 in their Division 2 District 33 tournament opener Monday at Gladstone High School.

“We survived, now we get to advance,” Braves first-year coach Jake Kiesby said. “I’m happy about it. The kids are happy about it. It’s gonna be a short happiness because we have a tough one on Wednesday we have to prepare for.”

After Johnson hit a 3-pointer in the first half’s final 10 seconds, the Braves carried a 19-16 lead at intermission. Houghton’s first-half offense consisted of three makes from beyond the arc by junior Luke Hill, two 3-pointers from junior Isaiah Lawson and senior Bryce Pugh splitting a pair of free throws to own a 1-0 lead at the time.

Everything in the paint was denied.

“I thought we did a great job taking a couple charges,” Kiesby said. “I think that kind of put the intensity on the game.”

With momentum on its side and a defensive pressure remaining stiffer than the branch of a 100-year old boak tree in January, Gladstone took over the game in the third stanza. With a layup from Johnson, a jumper from senior Thomas Tackman and a runner from senior Kaden Gibbs anchored nine-straight points for the Braves, forcing a Gremlins timeout.

Down 27-16, Houghton junior Lane Lux scored a layup to match a Johnson layup out of the timeout.

It was Houghton’s first made shot inside the 3-point line of the game. It also came 19:52 into the game.

“It is so hard to try to neutralize their speed, their athleticism,” Gremlins coach Jared Lawson said. “We’re trying to create shots for our guys. But when they’re switching everything (on defense), we don’t have that speed and Gladstone was locked in like they were tonight… It’s just hard to get any penetration. We got very little penetration inside the paint.”

With contributions from Johnson, Tackman and seniors Luke Bracket and Nick Matthews, the Braves claimed eight of the quarter’s final 12 points for a 35-22 advantage with eight minutes left. The 8-4 run morphed into a 14-4 spurt to open the fourth with baskets from Bracket, Johnson and Tackman for a 41-22 lead.

While Houghton clawed back to 41-24 with its third made 2-point shot of the game, Gladstone got a play from Bracket which served as a spark, a crowd pleaser and an exclamation point on Monday’s action. For the third-straight game, Bracket came away with a slam dunk. This time it came with 5:46 to go and gave the Braves a 43-24 lead.

It wouldn’t be the only tie Bracket slammed the ball through the hoop.

In fact, the final basket of Monday’s contest came from the showmanship of Bracket. This time he converted an alley-oop, sealing Gladstone’s victory.

Despite having its season end on Monday, Houghton was left with plenty of positives. Lawson said that the Gremlins had the goal to compete with schools that are “basketball schools” while also playing disciplined.

Lawson believes the Gremlins accomplished that. And with a WestPAC West Conference championship, he also believes the program moved in the right direction this season.

“I feel like we took a baby step forward trying to establish this program at the division two level,” Lawson said. “But it doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen over one year or two years or three years. It’s just a continuous process, and these guys are doing that for us. That’s what I’m proud of.”

For the Braves, Monday’s win comes with a beast waiting patiently in the garage. For the third time this season, Gladstone will collide with No. 3 Kingsford.

The Flivvers defeated the Braves twice during the regular season. Kingsford won on its home court 43-35 on Jan. 11 and one 64-57 in Gladstone on Feb. 8.

But the Braves are well aware that any chance of a district championship would require facing the Flivvers.

Kiesby admitted that he told the team in the beginning of the season that the first two meetings were a trial to see how they matched up and where they needed to improve.

Now it all boils down to another game with the season on the line.

“For us to execute tonight and be able to play that game, it’s huge,” Kiesby said. “(The season) was up and down. But the guys I had came to the gym and wanted to get better every day, regardless if we won or if we got beat by 25. I think that’s what’s important.”

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