HOUGHTON - In consecutive wins over GLIAC South Division powers Findlay and Hillsdale back in December, the Michigan Tech men's basketball team demonstrated how constrictive their defense could be when all five players on the floor move as one unit.
Against the top teams in the North, however, Tech lost that defensive luster. In road defeats to Ferris State and Lake Superior State, the Huskies allowed 70-plus points on consecutive nights then followed up that trip with a 70-59 loss to conference-leading Wayne State at the SDC.
Head coach Kevin Luke tried cajoling his team to rediscover the defensive chemistry for divisional play. He took a patient approach. But it never quite clicked again.
Michigan Tech’s Ali Haidar releases a shot in the second half of Thursday’s game against Ferris State at the SDC?Gym. Haidar had 27 points and 17 rebounds in Tech’s win, making him the school’s all-time leading rebounder. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
After the 59-55 loss to Northern Michigan last Saturday, Luke went with a tried-and-true tactic. He got angry. He threatened playing time, starting Matt Esters and Kyle Stankowski as a reward for their practice performances.
For Thursday at least, it produced results. Tech (14-6, 11-5 GLIAC) improved to No. 3 in the GLIAC with a 64-55 victory over Ferris State as the Huskies held the Bulldogs to 39 percent shooting and 0.93 points per possession.
"I thought our defense was awesome," Luke said. "We got back to the help (defense) we had against Findlay and Hillsdale.
Ferris State (11-8, 10-5 GLIAC)
Daniel Sutherlin 5-13 2-4 12; Trent Messer 0-0 0-0 0; Kenny Brown 2-12 0-0 5; Dietrich Lever 3-8 4-6 12; Drew Lehman 4-9 1-2 10; Josh Fleming 0-0 0-0 0; Jibreel Jackson 1-3 1-2 3; Jared Stolicker 5-6 0-0 10; Raymoan McAfee 1-3 1-2 3; Totals 21-54 9-16 55.
Michigan Tech (13-6, 10-5 GLIAC)
Ali Haidar 7-14 13-15 27; Kyle Stankowski 1-4 0-0 2; Alex Culy 0-3 0-0 0; Ben Stelzer 6-10 0-1 16; Matt Esters 1-3 6-6 9; Austin Armga 0-0 0-0 0; T.J. Brown 2-3 3-4 7; Jordan Chartier 0-0 0-0 0; Troy Hecht 0-0 0-0 0; Luke Heller 0-0 0-0 0; Phil Romback 1-4 0-0 3; Totals 18-41 22-26 64.
Halftime score: Tech 28, FSU 22.
3-point goals - FSU 9-16 (Sutherlin 2-4, Lever 4-6, Lehman 1-2, Jackson 1-2, McAfee 1-2), Tech 6-15 (Haidar 0-1, Culy 0-3, Stelzer 4-6, Esters 1-1, Romback 1-4); Rebounds - FSU 25 (Stolicker 6), Tech 38 (Haidar 17); Assists - FSU 11 (Brown 5), Tech 11 (Culy and Esters 4); Fouls - FSU 21, Tech 18; Fouled out - None; Technical fouls - None.
"Our kids moved their feet and had a great defensive position game, no question.
"We emphasize the execution, but (responsibility) is on them, and I am really happy for them."
Nowhere was the Tech defensive crispness more evident than rotations against penetrating guards Kenny Brown and Drew Lehman.
Brown (17.2 points per game) and Lehman (14 PPG) combined for two
points in the first half as help was quick to blunt their dribble-drives to the side. Brown, a senior, finished the game with five points on 2-of-12 shooting as he resorted to misguided pull-up three attempts with access to the lane denied.
Tech sophomore Ben Stelzer drew the primary assignment, but it truly was a full-team effort.
"When you don't let him get an easy one to get him going, those pull-up threes are a lot harder," Stelzer said. "When you are going against a top scorer like Brown, it is never an individual effort, it is almost always all five guys."
"To hold Kenny Brown to five is a great effort. He is an explosive offensive player," Luke added.
With the defense stifling, the Huskies were able to get Ali Haidar back on track offensively as well after a week of tough love from Luke. The senior big-man finished with 27 points (including 15 free-throw attempts) and 17 rebounds to become the career leading rebounder in Michigan Tech history with 806 total boards, surpassing Matt Cameron.
"(Daniel) Sutherlin is a great defender, so I have to be physical with him and get him tired for the rest of the game," Haidar said. "So I was going at him and just being physical with all the post players. I want to take it to them, before they take it to me."
Tech seized control for good with 15 minutes left when Ferris made the mistake of going to a 2-3 zone.
On the first possession, crisp ball movement found Stankowski for his only bucket of the day, a six-foot jumper in the lane. Then Stelzer (16 points) followed that up with consecutive three-pointers, including a beautiful pump-fake-one-dribble-and-rise swish that put the Huskies up 14.
Eight points on three possessions, and Ferris decided the zone defense wasn't such a good idea after all.
"The last few times that a team has gone zone against us, Lake Superior State and these guys, it has only taken a few possessions to get them out of it," Stelzer said.
"That was something we worked a lot on our last few weeks in practice, just our spacing and our cutting."
Cruising for what should have been a comfortable double-digit victory, Tech made it tougher on themselves than it should have with four turnovers in the last 2:15 to allow the Bulldogs as close as six points.
Calm free throw shooting - 22-of-26 on the day - ultimately kept Ferris at bay though to finish off the much-needed-victory.
"When we get leads of 10 or so and we get to that four-minute stretch, we really have to be communicating with each other," Stelzer said. "I think we lost a bit of focus there."
With the No. 2 Lakers at the SDC Saturday, Haidar says the focus is simple.
"It is evident that every time we come out flat we lose the game," Haidar said. "At their place we came out flat so today we made sure to come out physical and strong with a lot of energy and we got the 'W.'"
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