• Michigan

St. John leads Highlanders past cold-shooting Novi for key road win in KLAA West

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, January 7, 2020, 11:52 pm

NOVI — With as hard to come by as road wins are likely to be in the murderously tough Kensington Lakes Activities Association West Division, you take one when you can.

And Howell was certainly willing to take advantage of a lot of foul trouble and a little bit of cold shooting by the host Novi Wildcats in Tuesday’s KLAA West game, separating in the third quarter, and holding on for a 43-33 win.

“This is our fourth or fifth in a row now on the road, and Novi’s a very scrappy, tough team. They play well, their defense is solid, and they’ve got some very good ballplayers. As poorly as we started, it was like ‘Uh, oh.’ We’re in a hostile environment, on the road, and the weirdness of the game starting later, it makes a coach wonder a little bit. But I give my girls a lot of credit. They (the Wildcats) battled back to tie it up at half. But in the fourth quarter, we kind of dictated the tempo a little bit, with Maeve (St. John) handling the ball. It’s a great win for us on the road,” Howell coach Tim Olszewski said. “This division is tough. I think it’s one of the best in the state, I really do, with all the teams that are in there, so for us, a 10-point win on the road, we’ll take it all day long.”

With five of the eight teams in the division at 3-1 or better entering play on Tuesday — led by Hartland (No. 2 in the STATE CHAMPS! Top 25) and No. 9 Brighton —protecting your home floor is going to be a premium for those teams that want to separate from the pack. 

Hartland (5-0) and Brighton (5-0) both stayed unbeaten with divisional wins Tuesday night, while the Highlanders (4-1, 1-0 KLAA West), kept pace right behind them. Novi (3-2, 0-1) and Plymouth (3-2, 0-1) both opened divisional play with a tough loss, after 3-1 starts.

“It’s brutal. … I’d put our five … I’d put us against any other conference,” Novi coach C.J. Aro said. “It’s one of those things that our kids know, going in, what it’s going to be. You say, ‘Listen, we’re going to compete every single game.’ … But, yeah, it’s brutal.”

There are plenty of conferences around the state that go two deep with contenders in girls basketball, but three … and even four? Very few.

Maybe the Southeastern Conference’s Red Division — with Saline (7-0), Temperance-Bedford (6-0), Ann Arbor Huron (6-1) and Ann Arbor Pioneer (5-1) — would be one.

The Ottawa-Kent Conference’s Red Division — with Rockford (7-0), Hudsonville (6-0), East Kentwood (5-2) and Grand Haven (4-1) — might be the only other one. 

Howell’s only loss on the season is by eight to Pioneer, so Olszewski has first-hand knowledge of the comparison. 

“We’re right there,” the coach said. “The Pioneer game, we felt like we gave that away, so we very easily could be undefeated. This game, they tested our resolve a little bit, but we hit some shots, made some free throws, and glad to get out of town with a ‘W.’”

The Wildcats kept themselves in it with solid defense, but were just 4-for-19 from 3-point range in the game, and were held to just five points in the third quarter. 

“We shoot a ton of 3s, and we make a lot of 3s. I told the kids, ‘This sounds corny, shooting is like a really good looking guy — when he’s around, it’s great, wonderful. But when he’s gone, you need defense. That’s your family.’ We lost our two best kids to foul trouble, and then our shooter with the ankle,” Aro said. “I thought they hung tough. They played together, they did what they could. We’re not a great team across the board, but we play well together, and we do some really good things. Without those top two kids, it’s a big deal.”

A large part of that was the foul trouble for senior point guard Jenna Daschke. Saddled with three first-half fouls, she picked up her fourth with 5:31 left in the third, forcing Aro to sit her down to keep her from fouling out. 

When the Highlanders (4-1, 1-0) started to stretch out their lead a bit, Aro quickly reversed course, putting Daschke back in with 4:05 left in the quarter.

“That was the thing. I told my assistants, ‘We can’t lose the game in the third quarter to protect her.’ The same thing happened with the St. John kid (in the second quarter) — he (Olszewski) got through the quarter without her,” Aro said.

After Emma Lentz’s three-point play with 19 seconds left in the first half left the game deadlocked at 22-22 at the break, the Highlanders got six third-quarter points from Meagan Tucker and five from St. John to outscore the Wildcats 12-5 in the third, and take a 34-27 lead into the final quarter. 

With St. John — who led all scorers with 17 points — controlling the ball, Howell was able to take time off the clock in the fourth, and hit 5 of 8 free throws down the stretch to win by 10. 

“She’s a tough matchup. She’s a heck of a ball-handler, she goes to the basket,” Aro said.