Prep girls basketball: Ishpeming tops Negaunee for MHSAA Class C district title

ISHPEMING – Baseball pitchers toss shutouts. Hockey goalies will stop every shot they see. And even football teams occasionally keep the opposition from scoring.

But it’s not supposed to happen in basketball.

It did for a quarter on Friday night in Ishpeming’s 46-28 victory over Negaunee that gave the Hematites their fourth straight MHSAA Class C district tournament title.

In that time, Ishpeming hasn’t won a Mid-Peninsula Conference championship, thus entering as an underdog for what is yearly an all-M-PC tourney.

But the Hematites have put the “second season” first on their calendar over and over again.

“We haven’t won a league title since the 1970s,” said IHS first-year coach Tom Graves. “One of our goals was to win the conference, but I told the girls we have other goals we can attain.”

With the score tied 14-14 to begin the third quarter, Graves immediately had his girls employ a somewhat risky – but what proved to be strangling full-court press – on the Miners when they brought the ball up court.

It turned into a big fat zero for Negaunee on the scoreboard in the third quarter as Ishpeming built a 26-14 lead heading into the fourth.

Though Ishpeming had applied some backcourt pressure to Negaunee in the first half, the second half was pressure turned up to another level.

Generally, three Hematites defenders stayed home, at least one hounding the inbounder and double teams converging on whomever had the ball. Occasionally, the double team would turn into a triple team.

“We really wanted to get on the initial inbound pass,” Graves said. “What we were doing was just a man, trapping press.

“We wanted to get on Aleda Johnson, maybe rattle her, since she’s a freshman.”

Johnson had been the hero of the past two games for the Miners, making a total of 23 out of 24 free throws in those contests.

On Friday, she went to the line just once, making 1 of 2 early in the fourth quarter when the Hematites already had a double-digit lead.

The pressure wasn’t meant to create steals, but simply to impede the progress of Negaunee’s ballhandlers, according to Ishpeming junior and leading scorer Jessica Spencer.

“The plan was to put a lot of pressure on them and not let them get any openings,” said Spencer, who despite struggling with her offense in the first half ended as the game’s leading scorer with 14 points.

Graves said players like Spencer and fellow junior Kaylie Engler, both the tallest on the squad at 5-foot-9, could create havoc for a smaller player like Johnson, who is only listed at 5-3.

Those “trees” didn’t have to defend so closely that they would draw repeated fouls, and it was actually the Miners who were called for enough fouls to put Ishpeming in the bonus for nearly the entire fourth quarter and the double bonus for the game’s final four minutes.

It thwarted Negaunee’s strategy of fouling Ishpeming down the stretch – that and good free-throwing shooting by the Hematites.

“The name of the game is making free throws,” Graves said.

To the tune of 12 of 16 in the fourth quarter by IHS, including 5 of 6 by both Spencer and junior teammate Tammy Simula.

Negaunee coach Brandon Sager conceded Ishpeming played a better game Friday.

“We got outplayed, flat outplayed, tonight,” he said. “But my girls left it all out on the floor. It wasn’t for a lack of effort that we came up short.

“I think we got a little rattled. We had some opportunities when the game was close to make, but we missed a few layups off of our steals.”

Ishpeming just seemed a step ahead of the Miners all game.

Though Negaunee jumped out to a 7-2 lead about four minutes in, the Hematites rediscovered a post-up game with their lone senior, Gabby Croley.

She was fed several passes inside, needing to just take a step or turn around for a relatively easy layin.

“We went to isolating me in the post. I knew I could get inside with my height advantage on all their players,” the 5-7 Croley said.

In the second half, she served as a last line of defense in case the Miners broke the double- and triple-teaming in the backcourt.

Simula scored 11 points and Engler 10 for Ishpeming (16-6), which opens regional play against St. Ignace (20-2) at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday in Escanaba.

For Negaunee (12-10), Johnson finished with team highs of 13 points and eight rebounds.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is