Perhaps it hasn’t been as dominant or consistent as years past for the Houghton Gremlins. For every signature win this season, there seemed to be a head-scratching loss to follow. But after all the ups and downs, it certainly looked like same old Houghton on Monday.
The Gremlins topped the rival Calumet Copper Kings 58-44 by utilizing the same formula that’s established themselves as the premier local girls program: ball movement and stifling defense.
The victory leaves Houghton just a game away from clinching another West-PAC title. A win over the Hancock Bulldogs on Feb. 19 will secure Houghton’s 18th West-PAC championship in 19 years.
“There can be frustration because the growth could not be as consistent or as increased as we want it to be, but there’s been growth,” Houghton coach Julie Filpus said. “I like our spot and where we’re headed.”
Part of the inconsistency can be traced back to Houghton attempting to work through the absence of senior point guard Madi Dillinger as she sat the first half of the season with an injury. Then, Houghton had to work on integrating her into the lineup. But with districts now less than two weeks away, it appears the Gremlins have the offensive continuity they’ve been searching for.
Houghton shot 46 percent (21-46) against Calumet and assisted on 17 of 21 made baskets. Dillinger facilitated the offense and dealt with Calumet’s trapping pressure by dishing out nine assists. Senior Kara Pietila led the Gremlins with 19 points.
“I feel like with every game, Madi is gaining confidence and getting her game back,” Filpus said. “She’s very good at distributing the ball in transition.”
But the hallmark of the elite Houghton teams in the past has been its ability to defend. And after a 3 by Calumet freshman Elli Djerf with 4:28 left in the second period for a 23-20 lead, Houghton didn’t allow Calumet to score a basket the rest of the half.
With a 26-25 halftime lead, Houghton then limited Calumet to just 8 of 27 shooting in the second half (29 percent) and forced the Copper Kings into seven turnovers.
“I think just throwing the ball away when we didn’t have to throw it,” Calumet Jeff Twardzik said about the reason for the lack of offensive production in the second half. “Not being patient with the basketball … The ball wasn’t dropping, but we weren’t getting the quality looks we had in the first half.”
The Gremlins (11-6, 6-1) were an efficient 12 of 24 from the field in the second half. Pietila put the game out of reach when she made a layup as she was fouled before making the free throw for the three-point play, giving Houghton a 54-41 lead with just over three minutes left.
Houghton’s second-half offensive production was the result of not succumbing to Calumet’s trapping pressure. The Copper Kings would trap the first pass the Gremlins made in the halfcourt consistently throughout the night. In the first two quarters, Houghton had 11 miscues before committing just six errors the rest of the way.
“The reaction from our opposite post and our one to be an outlet from the trap,” Filpus said about the improvement of handling the trap. “I thought overall the girls did a pretty good job with it.”
Junior Cassie Ryynanen added 16 points for Houghton while making five 3s. She had 13-first-half points as she converted 4 of 7 attempts from 3-point range.
Djerf paced Calumet with 12 points in her starting debut in her third game at the varsity level. If there were any nerves, she didn’t show it. Djerf opened Calumet’s scoring with a rip-through and a drive for a layup. She also swished two 3s as she established herself as a legitimate scoring option for the remainder of the season.
“The number one thing I like about Elli is that there was no fear,” Twardzik said. “Right from the get-go when she had the two points, she saw the girl came high on her so she drove past her. I’m just happy she went after it and did what she could do.
“I think she’s going to be a huge asset to our team offensively. Just the threat that we can count on someone besides Niina (Anderson) and Brea (Johnson) to score, so it was nice to see that.”
Overall, Calumet (7-9, 4-3) shot 17 of 48 (35 percent) and had 17 turnovers.
With the win, Houghton sweeps the season series. The two teams will meet for a third time on Feb. 26 in a district opener in Calumet. It will be the first postseason matchup between the rivals since Houghton won 65-43 on March 1, 2012.
“I think in both games, the biggest thing is the kids still believe they can win,” Twardzik said. “So there’s no fear involved. We just have to clean up a couple things on the turnovers and where we are on defensive positioning. But I’m really looking forward to that first (district) game.”
Next, Calumet hosts West Iron County on Thursday. A win over WIC (14-2, 4-2) would allow Houghton to clinch the conference title regardless of the outcome with its matchup against Hancock.
Houghton welcomes Marquette on Thursday.
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Calumet 14 11 10 9 — 44
Houghton 14 12 17 15 — 58
Calumet — Niina Anderson 2, Brea Johnson 9, Bjorn 11, Amber Johnson 4, Kiilunen 4, Kariniemi 2, Djerf 12. F: 14; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 5-6; 3-point field goals: Brea Johnson 3, Djerf 2.
Houghton — Dillinger 6, Pietila 19, Ryynanen 16, Klein 5, Monette 8, Froberg 4. F: 7; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 11-13; 3-point field goals: Ryynanen 5.