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PERFECT FINISH: No. 13 Port Huron finishes off 20-0 regular season with first-ever MAC tourney title win

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 23, 2020, 12:53 am

WARREN — Perfect ending.

It would’ve seemed such a waste, had Port Huron gotten all the way here, right to the cusp of a perfect season, and lost in the Saturday afternoon’s Macomb Area Conference’s Red/White tournament title game. 

But the No. 13-ranked Big Reds pulled out in the end for a 42-39 win over Grosse Pointe North, finishing off a perfect 20-0 regular season, and claiming the program’s first MAC tournament title. 

“Oh, absolutely. To be 19-0, and then lose today?” Big Reds coach Becky Gilbert pondered. “Obviously, if we’d lost, we have 19 wins, you’d have to look at that, but to be 20-0 — it’s almost unheard of at any level. For them to go 20-0, it’s just been amazing. That’s all I can say, just amazing. I don’t know any other words to say.”

Until this season, the Big Reds hadn’t ever even won a single game in the MAC tournament, but now they have a trophy to put in the showcase. 

“It’s huge. For this program, it’s huge. We’ve worked so hard. Everyone came to see this game, and to put on a show for them, that was huge. It’s very emotional, and I couldn’t be more proud of my team, my coaches, everyone,” junior Emma Trombly said. “I think we’ve proved ourselves. I think we’ve showed teams what we’re made of, and we’ve definitely come a long way.”

It didn’t come easy, though, against a Grosse Pointe North squad that knocked off MAC Red Division regular-season champion Grosse Pointe South twice — once in the regular season, and once in the tournament semifinals. 

The defending Red/White tournament champs, the Norsemen (13-6, 6-4 MAC Red) kept the game at their tempo, slowing things down, and forcing the up-tempo Big Reds to play their game. 

“We knew that was going to happen. They’re a very disciplined team, and they played their offense. They’re very patient, and we’re kind of like, quick, quick, quick,” Gilbert said. “That was tough for us. We knew that going in, but until you actually play them, it’s tough to simulate, I guess, in practice.”

The Norsemen’s scrambling, double-teaming defense forced the Big Reds into a number of first-half miscues, forcing Port Huron to take a collective deep breath at halftime. 

“We worked so hard for this, so to not play to our potential, it wasn’t in there for us,” Trombly said. “We came in at halftime, and we knew we had to cut down on the turnovers, and we told ourselves we had to relax. … After hafltime, that was a huge shift. We calmed down, played our game, and that’s what got us here.”

The game was tied 12-12 after one quarter, but GPN held a 22-19 lead at the break. By the end of the third quarter, the Big Reds had it tied up again, at 26-26. 

It took the Big Reds getting some shots to fall — they hit three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter after nailing just two for the first three frames.

“That’s something that we really feed off of, in terms of energy-wise. And I think that was a huge help,” Gilbert said.

But it also took a shift in defensive philosophy to start to clamp down on the Norsemen, going to a zone look. 

“We hadn’t ran that all year. That was the first time we ran it. We’ve been straight-up man the whole year, and we were like ‘OK, we’re going to try this.’ We told the girls we were going to try it, and they were just all in, and ‘Let’s do it,’” Gilbert said. “The nice thing about telling the girls we’re just going to make this adjustment is that they’re so coachable. They just do it. They totally bought in. They wanted to win, so …”

Trombly tied the game up at 30-30 with a split at the free-throw line with 5:32 left, then Jenna Holzberger’s 3-pointer with 4:40 left gave the Big Reds the lead for good. Madison Landschoot’s drive with 2:40 left made it a three-point game again, at 40-37, then the Big Reds went 2-for-4 from the line in the final 69 seconds to close out the win. 

North went to the line 10 more times than the Big Reds — a large disparity, especially since eight of Port Huron’s 13 free-throw attempts came in the fourth quarter, when the Norsemen were trying to trade fouls for clock stoppages — but were just 7-for-23 from the stripe. Port Huron went 9-for-13 from the line, by contrast. 

Trombly had 12 points to lead Port Huron, while Christina Braker matched her for the lead for GPN. 

It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable run for the Big Reds, even if there was a bit of pressure attached to keeping the perfect season alive.

“It’s very enjoyable. I feel like I just have so much trust and so much faith in the girls, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable,” Gilbert said. “Sure, we get stressed, worried about things, but then you remember all the good things they do, and they’ll do it when you ask them to.”