The hesitant, second-guessing team at the start of the season is no more. Instead, the Calumet Copper Kings have transformed into a defensive juggernaut that is playing with the confidence and ability that Jeff Twardzik always imagined they were capable of.
Forget a rebuilding season, Calumet stands one win away from a regional championship after a 60-49 victory over the Negaunee Miners Tuesday in Marquette in a Class C Region 24 semifinal.
Calumet will now face the St. Ignace Saints in a regional title game Thursday at 7 p.m. at Marquette High School. St. Ignace won last year’s matchup against Calumet, 53-52.
“We’re getting better and better and better,” Twardzik said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Two years ago, Calumet senior Hailey Wickstrom was a sophomore reserve and witnessed Lexie Rowe carry Calumet to a state title. Last season, she played alongside another veteran guard in Clara Loukus. Now, the 6-foot-3 Wickstrom is a senior leader herself and guiding the Copper Kings to a deep postseason run; she finished one block shy of a triple-double on Tuesday, recording 19 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks.
“I absolutely feel like I had to be aggressive,” Wickstrom said. “(Negaunee) was playing absolutely tough defense on me. They weren’t even letting me get to the block at all, but I knew I couldn’t just stand there and let them do it, so I had to try and do something.”
Over the past two seasons, Calumet won games with its man-to-man pressure defense. But with Wickstrom’s emergence as a reliable rim protector over the last two seasons, her shot-blocking ability adds another imposing element opposing offenses have to prepare for.
Negaunee struggled to develop an offensive rhythm against Calumet’s speed and length and shot just 18 of 57 (32 percent).
“She blocked a couple shots and then we got a little scared to continue to penetrate,” Negaunee head coach Brandon Sager said. “She affected a lot. We tried to pull her out when we could, but their defense affected our game with their pressure. And when we did get by, (Wickstrom) pretty much shut us down when we went into the lane.”
Wickstrom, an NMU volleyball commit, sent some shots flying back as if she was going for a volleyball kill. But her biggest block saved a fourth-quarter layup to preserve Calumet’s 47-39 lead with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining.
Trailing 45-31 entering the fourth, Negaunee applied in-your-face ball pressure for the full length of the court. Their aggressive style made the final six minutes a physical contest and eventually, it was enough for the mild-mannered Twardzik to break character.
Twardzik’s signature coaching style is to sit on the bench, relaxed, with a leg crossed over while occasionally giving an order. But after junior Lea Bjorn fouled out after a Calumet turnover, Twardzik stood up and let an official know he was upset with various no-calls throughout the fourth.
“I didn’t curse at all,” he said. “Honestly, the only words I told him was, ‘That was some of the worst reffing I’ve ever seen.’ That’s all I said. Pointing out the obvious, I don’t know why that’s a technical.
“There were a couple times where it was just blatant misplacement. It just seemed like the game was getting out of hand. I’ve seen our kids get hurt and things happen in those situations, and I guess that just pushed me over the edge.”
Following the technical, Negaunee (17-6) could not take advantage as they missed the front end of a 1-and-1 before making just 1 of 2 technical free throws. Calumet (16-5) led 47-37 after the dramatic ordeal and had to just hang on for 5:59 more.
Twelve of Calumet’s 18 turnovers came in the second half against Negaunee’s increased pressure — including eight in the fourth — but Wickstrom finished a putback to give her team a 51-39 advantage with 3:26 remaining to put the Calumet fans at ease.
“We did not execute on either end of the floor, but I thought (Calumet) created a lot of that,” Sager said. “We just couldn’t close the gap. I can’t take anything away from what they did, and I don’t want to make an excuse that we didn’t play good and that’s why they won — they played really good.”
Calumet’s dominating start to each half dictated the game. Negaunee scored just 15 points total in the first and third quarters, while the Copper Kings exhibited a confidence and purpose, early on, that was lacking at the beginning of the season.
In the final seconds of the first, Calumet junior Brooke Kariniemi swished a corner 3 before junior Amber Johnson stole the following inbound pass and dished to junior Niina Anderson for a jumper before the buzzer sounded. The five-point spurt in eight seconds gave Calumet a 20-9 lead heading into the second quarter.
At halftime, Twardzik decided to scrap the zone defense with trapping elements that he was mixing in with Calumet’s man-to-man. Negaunee struggled in the third against the Copper Kings’ signature defense, shooting just 2 of 14 in the quarter.
“I thought we had a few shots. In the second quarter, we were stagnant and stood around,” Sager said. “We talked at halftime about moving, and we came out and did that, we just couldn’t get the shots to fall.
“Credit to them. I thought their defense caused us a lot of problems.”
Junior Clara Johnson led the Miners with 12 points.
Anderson finished with 17 points for Calumet and went 4 for 4 at the free-throw line down the stretch to secure the victory. Calumet shot 22 of 48 (46 percent) and held a 41-31 rebounding advantage.
St. Ignace (21-2) defeated the West Iron County Wykons 67-58 in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader to set up the possibility for a rematch with Calumet. Last year, St. Ignace’s Natalee Lee converted the game-winning free throw with 1.1 seconds remaining.
“I don’t think anyone projected Calumet-St. Ignace,” Twardzik said of this year’s regional final matchup. “I’m sure everybody thought St. Ignace would be on the east side, but Munising, Ishpeming and Negaunee was who everyone was talking about.
“Again, I couldn’t be more proud, and I wouldn’t mind taking another swing at them.”
Negaunee 9 16 6 18 — 49
Calumet 20 12 13 15 — 60
Calumet — Anderson 17, Bjorn 9, Johnson 6, Kariniemi 9, Wickstrom 19. F: 17; Fouled out: Bjorn; Technical foul: Twardzik; Free throws: 12-14; 3-point field goals: Bjorn 3, Kariniemi.