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No. 18 Brighton takes must-win game from No. 2 Hartland, putting KLAA West into a three-way tie for first

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, January 24, 2020, 11:08 pm

BRIGHTON — You could tell that Paul Ash was trying to hold back on a massive fist-pump for several minutes before he could finally unleash it.

Then, when the clock finally hit 0:00, the head coach finally pulled the trigger.

It was an acknowledgement that his No. 18-ranked Brighton Bulldogs had held serve on their home floor Friday night, knocking off No. 2 Hartland, 41-33, to leave the Kensington Lakes Activities Association’s West Division in a three-way tie.

And it wasn’t just a key game for the Bulldogs, an important one …

It was a HAD … TO … HAVE game.

There’s no way the Bulldogs (9-1, 5-1) could to go two games down in loss column behind the Eagles (9-1, 5-1) — still having to face them on the road later on — and hope to pull even. 

“Oh, no. Hartland’s not gonna lose two games. We’re going to have a heck of a time trying to beat them up there, to be honest, so we knew we had to have this one tonight. It’s funny, when your back’s to the wall, our kids responded, and I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” Ash said. “We knew we couldn’t drop this one tonight. …We knew we had to have this one tonight. The kids kind of willed themselves to this one tonight.”

With the win, the league race essentially re-sets to zero for the top three contenders to try again. Everybody’s 1-1 against the other two front-runners, having won at home and lost on the road. 

“I think this: If indeed Brighton, Hartland and Howell are the cream of the division, then everybody just held serve. We beat Howell at home. Howell beat Brighton at home, Brighton beat us at home. So you’re going to go on,” said Hartland coach Don Palmer. “I’ve always said the good thing about basketball is that you don’t have a whole lot of time to stay down, because we’ll be playing Tuesday, and we’ve got a game ahead of us. They’re all important. This is one, but we’ve still got a long way to go in the race.”

There is a long way to go, but there is an 11-day span next month that will likely be the biggest in deciding who will win the division. 

The key dates are: 

• Feb. 7, when Hartland plays at Howell.

• Feb. 11, when Howell goes to Brighton.

• Feb. 18, when Brighton visits Hartland.

If everything’s even after that … well, like last year, when Brighton and Hartland tied for the divisional crown, it’ll go to a tiebreaker for seeding in the tournament, and come down to point-differential. 

“It’s who’s going to get one on the road. That’s exactly what it is. … It’s going to be a fun second half, but I just told the girls, we can’t look past (anybody). We don’t make that mistake,” said Ash, admitting it was still weird for Brighton to feel like it had a must-win game on Jan. 24.

“It is. But we were talking about that in practice the other day. It’s kind of a good thing in getting you ready for the state tournament. The more games you face like that, the more prepared you are for the state tournament.”

With a large crowd on hand for Brighton’s Coaches vs. Cancer game, and an electric atmosphere for two teams that had been ranked in the top 10 all season long, the Bulldogs came out of the gate like it was a tournament game.

They snapped off a 10-0 run to start the game, and led wire-to-wire. Hartland got it as close as three points on several occasions, but never closer. 

“I thought they outplayed us. That was one thing. I thought maybe the environment, the atmosphere got to them a little bit — I’m guessing. I thought a big swing was when Nikki (Dompierre) got that steal, went down for the layup, and missed it — she’s not trying to miss it, obviously — and then we just went on a scoring drought. It became, OK, they were making us chase, and we weren’t really successful at it,” Palmer said. “I don’t think we played well, but I think they had a lot to do with it.”

The Bulldogs did it with a physical defense that held Hartland to fewer than 10 points in every quarter. 

“I thought we played as good a defensive game as we’ve played in a long time. Our kids were really flying around, really good in their rotations,” Ash said. “We got lucky that Hartland missed a few shots that they normally might make — and we can’t count on them missing them up at their place, that’s for sure — but you gotta give our kids credit: they played a lot of good defense tonight.”

While Elaine Halonen spearheaded the charge to hold the Hartland point guard, Dompierre, scoreless, the two Division I bigs in the game — Brighton’s Sophie Dziekan (Bowling Green) and Hartland’s Whitney Sollom (Michigan) — all but neutralized each other. Dziekan finished with seven points, while Sollom had five. 

“She (Dziekan) played a great game, no question. She’s unselfish. I bet you she had three or four assists — they doubled, she kicked it out — and that’s what she’s taught to do,” Ash said, explaining the spread-out scoring.

“We’re not built that we run offense through one player. … We tell our kids ‘We expect you all to be basketball players.’ You get in a little danger when you go through one player too much. … Hartland’s a great defensive team, but I think we spread them out a little bit, and got some good drive lanes to the basket.”

Finding good lanes was key to a different outcome than had happened a week earlier for the Bulldogs. When Hartland did push up on them defensively in the full court in the second half, the Bulldogs may have turned the ball over a few times, but they never panicked. 

“We took care of the basketball, we didn’t turn it over as much as we had in some other games this year. That’s probably the biggest difference between how we played at Howell, and how we played here tonight. We had a nine-point lead at Howell, and we didn’t take care of the ball. We had a nine-point lead tonight, and we took care of the ball, made them foul us, and then the game was over,” Ash said. “We took a deep breath, spread the floor a little better than we did at Howell, gave ourselves some lanes to throw to, lanes to drive to, and that was the difference. The Howell game, we hated to lose to them — but they earned it. So we just said we’ve gotta come back, play our style, and take better care of the basketball.”

Sydney Hetherton had 10 points to lead the Bulldogs, while Halonen had eight. Amanda Roach scored 12 off the Hartland bench to lead all scorers, while Madi Moyer had eight.

———

Friday’s game also served as a memorial to honor Madison Wegener, a 14-year-old Brighton student who passed away on Tuesday from idiopathic pulmonary hypertension. A passionate advocate for organ donation, she saved four lives and provided the gift of sight upon her passing. Both teams wore purple warm-ups to honor her memory, and the crowd sang one of Madison’s favorite songs, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ in the dark at halftime.