Chippewas win regional title

SAULT STE. MARIE — They took the scenic route to do it, but Thursday night the Manistee Chippewas completed the journey for their first regional championship since 1994 with a 56-47 win over the Houghton Gremlins at Sault Ste. Marie.

While it was a historic accomplishment, Chippewas forward Audrey Tomaszewski insists the journey is far from over.

“It’s good but it’s not what we said we wanted to do at the start of this season,” she said. “We want another trophy. We have two, but we want three.”

Manistee’s Emilee Kott looks to score during the Chippewas’ regional championship victory over Houghton in Sault Ste. Marie on Thursday. (Jared Buchholz/News Advocate)

Manistee’s Emilee Kott looks to score during the Chippewas’ regional championship victory over Houghton in Sault Ste. Marie on Thursday. (Jared Buchholz/News Advocate)

The Chippewas (23-1) will play on Tuesday in Mount Pleasant in a state quarterfinal against Goodrich for their last stop before the Breslin Center and the state semifinals.

While Manistee was far from comfortable until the final minute, they got a championship performance from Emilee Kott, who scored a game-high 26 points, including going 12 for 14 from the foul line while also grabbing six rebounds with eight steals and an assist.

Tomaszewski attempted a team-high eight two-point shots while scoring 13 points with a team-high seven rebounds. Emma Burns added eight points, six rebounds, a block and a steal and Annie Fuller scored five with three rebounds, two assists and two steals. Jessica Gustad added seven rebounds.

“We had a couple with some off nights, but they were playing some pretty darn good defense,” said Manistee coach Todd Erickson. “Emma stepped up. (Jessica Gustad) played her usual role like she always does. Natalee Kott was the spark plug kid who just elevates and I thought Annie (Fuller) had a great all around game too.

“I told them, we are going to have some glitches, but I think we only had three turnovers in the first half … We only had six overall.  You can’t ask for a better game out of these kids.”

Sloane Zenner led the Gremlins (19-6) with 18 points, though she scored just five in the second half, and Michelle Laux provided four triples for Houghton.

It is hard to travel 250 miles from your gym and still get a home-game atmosphere, but thanks to some dedicated fans that is what the Chippewas had Thursday night.

“Weren’t they great,” Erickson said of the crowd. “I just saw the kids in the cheering section and I thought they were going to break that little bleacher. Just to have all those kids show up, especially for a school night. It was just a great thing.”

Emilee Kott scored the game’s first two points on a dribble-drive layup, but the Gremlins answered with an interior basket. Tomaszewski regained the early lead on a layup, but again the Gremlins answered with a post basket.

Then the Gremlins got a taste of what has gotten Manistee this far: defense. Save for two long triples, the Chippewas shut down the Gremlins to build a slim 13-10 lead at the first break.

Emilee Kott opened the second by draining a contested 3-pointer to give Manistee a 16-10 lead and Tomaszewski split a pair of free throws to push the lead to seven. Again, Houghton responded with a long triple to tighten the game, but Tomaszewski broke the Gremlin defense with a physical dribble drive then, after a Chippewas’ steal, Emilee Kott found Burns in transition for an easy layup and a 21-13 lead.

The Gremlins started to find their rhythm when a couple long, contested jumpers fell, sparking a quick eight points. Emilee Kott nearly negated the run by herself as she scored on a dribble drive then drained a triple with a Gremlin in her face.

Houghton’s Megan Colling converted a par of free throws to cut the lead to three at 26-23, but Natalee Kott responded with the play of the night when she nailed a triple while being trampled by a Gremlin, then hit the ensuing foul shot to compete the four-point play and give Manistee a 30-23 lead.

Houghton hit a late three to head to the locker room down 30-26.

In the third, the Chippewas went cold, being held to a pair of Emilee Kott free throws for the first 6:29 as the Gremlins stormed all the way back to take the lead at 34-32 on a pair of free throws by Madison Dilinger.

“In the third quarter, I just don’t think they were in sync, as far as offensively,” Erickson said. “We tried a couple of offensive sets and they weren’t working. So I said go back to basics.”

The lapses have Tomaszewski concerned.

“I don’t think we are where we should be as a team heading into the games we are going to play,” she said. “Against the team we are going to play … we can’ make the mistakes we are making. Even if it seems like to everybody that we have everything clicking, we’re not where we should be. I think there are some things we need to work on.”

As if somebody flipped a switch, the Chippewas’ defense got back to its usually stinginess, holding the Gremlins scoreless for the final four minutes of the third as they regained the lead to enter the fourth up 38-34 behind four more Emilee Kott points and a critical offensive rebound putback by Fuller.

They carried the defensive effort strong in the fourth, holding Houghton scoreless for four more minutes as a step-back jumper by Emilee Kott and a physical drive by Burns extended the lead to 42-34.

“Defensively, when we went to the 2-3 zone I thought it was the best defense they played,” Erickson said. “They were right where they needed to be when we needed them. It is something we don’t flash a lot because we don’t know how much people look at it, but we are going to have to use it a little bit more.”

The Gremlins got back on the board with a long jumper by Dilinger, which Tomaszewski followed with a layup for a 44-36 lead.

Laux got a triple to fall for the Gremlins and Dilinger added a layup with 2:07 left to tighten the game at 44-41. Natalee Kott drained a pair of free throws and Emilee Kott fell to the floor with the ball, kept the dribble through three defenders and got a floater to fall near the rim with 1:38 left for a 48-44 lead.

With the Chippewa fans in a frenzy, Emilee Kott and Tomaszewski scored eight from the foul line to end the game and start the party.

“I think we are better with the pressure, because last year we cracked, but I still don’t think we’re where we should be at going into the next game,” Tomaszewski said.

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