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Defensive-minded Brighton keeps rolling, smashing Northville to stay unbeaten

By: Matthew B. Mowery, January 22, 2019, 10:30 pm

BRIGHTON — Like most coaches, if Paul Ash had his druthers, everyone would keep ignoring his Brighton girls basketball squad.

Move along. Nothing to see here. Don’t look behind the curtain.

The longer nobody notices that … hey, the Bulldogs are *REALLY* good, the longer they can keep that massive chip on the shoulder of their players, the aftereffects of playing second (or third) fiddle in their own county for the last few years.

“We like that. In fact, Dan (Christner, his assistant coach) and I were talking about it, ‘Just keep us out of the top 10. Let Hartland get noticed, let everybody get noticed, and we’ll just keep flying under that radar.’ The kids have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, and as a coach, you love it,” Ash said with a grin, after Tuesday night’s 53-23 win over Northville left his squad 11-0 and 8-0 in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association’s West Division.

“I don’t think we’ll be under the radar a whole lot longer, but that’s OK. Anything to motivate high school kids is a good thing.”

After winning the West for three straight years — 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15 — the Bulldogs have been looking up in the standings at both of their Livingston County neighbors, Howell (2015-16 KLAA champs, 2017-18 KLAA runner-up) and Hartland (2016-17 KLAA champs). The Eagles have made two runs to the quarterfinals in the last four years, as well.

That’s left the Bulldogs with the feeling that they have a bit of something to prove, left them feeling a bit underrated.

“Yeah. Definitely. We talk about this every day,” said junior center Sophie Dziekan, who is committed to Bowling Green. “Coach says we have a chip on our shoulder, and that’s definitely true because — we just talked about it — Brighton’s never won a state championship, ever, in girls basketball. And if we keep going the way we are now, keep working, we definitely have a chance. And no one expects it from us, because Brighton’s never pulled it off.”

The Bulldogs served notice that it might just be their turn to be the hunted, rather than the hunter, with last week’s 45-38 win over a Hartland squad that most had ranked among the top 10-15 teams in the state in Division 1.

“Honestly I think that we look at it like they’ve always been in the limelight, at least through my high school career, so it’s nice to try to attack it, because there’s something that they have, that we want. Every time we play them, we just have that feeling, that gut anger from every time we’ve lost against them,” Dziekan said, noting that maybe the roles have changed a bit, and that the unblemished record might be finally putting a target on the Bulldogs’ backs.

“It’s awesome, because every team, we kind of have a target on our back. They always want to beat us. It’s just incredible being that team. We keep working harder and harder.

“I kind of like people being like, ‘Oh, that’s Brighton.’ That’s pretty awesome.”

The thing that’s going to get the Bulldogs noticed is a stifling defense that’s allowing an average of just 26.4 points per game, and has allowed more than 30 just three times.

“Defense comes first, always. That’s how you win championships. Defense always wins championships,” Dziekan said. “We’re a really fast team, and we like to run the court, and we have more depth than most teams, so we know that if we wear out their main five, we know we can keep going, and going, and going, and get them tired, and get in the passing lane, when they’re tired. Once you get those few steals, you just keep riding the wave.”

Taking the defense to another level has been one of the reasons for the hot start, and one of the biggest differences between this year and last for the Bulldogs.

“I think that’s part of it, and just the maturity. They were all sophomores last year. Now they’re juniors. I will tell you this: These kids practice hard. I’m an old-style coach that says how you practice translates into how you play. We’re getting after teams pretty good right now, and that does lead to turnovers, and fast breaks. It gives us a chance to get runs, get that 10-, 12-point run, and then it just gets easier,” Ash said. “We’re a good, solid offensive team, but our defense kind of creates everything for us. That’s who we are. We hang our hat on defense.”

That was evidenced in the start to Tuesday’s game, when the Bulldogs held Northville (7-4, 3-4) scoreless for the first 4:54 of the game, jumping out to a 15-0 lead, and holding the Mustangs to just three points in each of the first two quarters.

“They’re outstanding. There’s a reason why they’re undefeated, there’s a reason why they beat Hartland last week,” Northville coach Todd Gudith said. “I told our kids, ‘They play like we talk we want to play.’ They’re the blueprint. They just get right in your face, and make you work for everything. Even easiest things become real difficult against them.”

The Bulldogs led 27-6 at the half, and 43-19 entering the fourth.

Part of that was the conundrum that Gudith faced coming into the game: Would he play all ball-handlers, to negotiate the Brighton pressure defense, or go with 6-foot-2 junior center Morgan Thompson to clog up the middle, and slow down Dziekan and company inside?

He chose the former, then put Thompson in midway through the first.

“It was a matchup issue. You gotta have some guards on the floor that can handle the ball, and deal with the pressure, and feel comfortable out there. But at the same time, you gotta deal with Sophie, and not just her, but everybody else on the team,” Gudith said. “She’s a load. Morgan does a pretty good job with her. I think Sophie might be a step quicker, but they match up great, but then you’re giving up (the ball handling) on the other end.”

After six quick points out of the gate, Dziekan had just two more points in the first half, while Thompson was in the game. In the third quarter, though, she was able to draw the shot blocking Thompson away from the bucket and score 10 points in the frame, finishing with a game-high 22.

“No question. She (Thompson) protects the rim pretty well. You get a kid that’s a D-II caliber kid, she does change the game a little bit. Our plan was to get Sophie to try to draw her out (of the lane) and create driving lanes,” Ash said. “We kind of got a little bit of that done.”

Sydney Hetherton added eight points for Brighton, while Lauren Brown had six.

Ellie Thallman had eight points to lead Northville, while Lauren Marshall had six.