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Still flying under the radar, Howell moves to 5-1 by gutting out win over Plymouth

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, January 10, 2020, 10:41 pm

HOWELL — None of the Highlanders are old enough to remember the comedy of Rodney Dangerfield, but they’re familiar with his oft-uttered sentiment: “I don’t get no respect.”

Throughout their playoff run to the semifinals last year, few considered them favorites to survive almost any of their games beyond the start of regionals — and yet they soldiered on as the underdogs.

Then, when the calendar flipped to the 2019-20 season, the Highlanders were rewarded with … almost nobody listing them among their preseason top 20 or 25 teams. 

No respect.

“I kind of like it. I think motivation for a coach is the hardest thing. This makes that part of it pretty easy. We’re not too worried about that kind of stuff. That’s fun for the fans and the parents and that kind of thing. Obviously it’s cool stuff, but we’re not too worried about it,” Howell coach Nick Simon said. “We weren’t ranked any of last year. Nobody had us on the radar, so I think the more people are going to sleep on us, the better it is.”

His players don’t think any differently.

“We don’t really worry about it too much. We just go out there and practice, work as hard as we can,” senior Bobby Samples said. “We’ll continue to get better, and hopefully our ranking will improve.”

Entering Friday’s KLAA West Division game at 4-1, the Highlanders blew out of the gate hot, and quickly built a double-digit on Plymouth, then had to withstand a Wildcats comeback in the final minutes to hold on for a 59-54 win.

“It’s interesting because, obviously during the game, it’s a little tight, because you’re not sure you’re going to win the game. But it’s something that as soon as the game was done, I was thrilled that we got to that point,” Simon said. “Our one loss this year (48-46 to Ann Arbor Skyline) we got to the same point — we’d been leading all game, and the same situation happened. Tony (Honkala) fouled out, and we lost the lead, and lost the game. It was kind of a redo on that (angle). Even though it wasn’t the prettiest thing, for these guys to be able to come back and win this one, that’s a big step forward. There’s a lot we can learn from that. Like I said, it’s not a pretty win, but I don’t think anybody cares about that in a couple of days.”

The Highlanders (5-1, 2-0 KLAA West) led 22-13 after one quarter, and 35-23 at the half, but Plymouth (3-3, 1-3) got the deficit down as low as eight twice in the third quarter, once near the midway point of the quarter, and again with under two minutes left in the third. 

“I thought changing the tempo a little bit for a couple of minutes slowed things down, changed things, and we were able to get our bearings, and get back to what like to do. Changed things in the second half — we were better in the second half, but we’ve gotta be better starting,” said Plymouth coach Mike Soukup, who went to a zone for a few minutes to slow the hot-shooting Highlanders down. “I’m proud of my boys. I don’t believe in moral victories — only real ones — but they didn’t go away tonight, when all the markings were there for them to, if they wanted to. That’s the mark of good kids, tough kids.”

Each time the Wildcats cut it within three possessions in the third, Samples answered with a 3-pointer to pump the lead back up to double digits.

He had a chance to do the same with just under four minutes to play, but it just rimmed out, and the Wildcats capitalized. Jacob Smith had a three-point play opportunity with 3:06 left to cut it to five points, then Matt MacLellan hit a turn-around jumper with 2:27 left to cut it to three, 55-52.

“We went out there and executed the game plan, and hit some shots, but what we needed to better was play some defense, and help down on those bigs. We got a little better toward the third quarter, but the fourth quarter killed us,” Samples said. “They hit some tough shots, especially No. 11 (Jacob Smith). We did a poor job on doubling down — that was our game plan — but you live and learn from that.”

The 6-foot-7 MacLellan and 6-3 Jacob Smith gave the Highlanders fits inside, almost single-handedly willing the Wildcats back into the game.

At one point, the foul disparity was 12-4 against the Highlanders. Tony Honkala picked up all five of his fouls in the second half, his fifth coming with 1:56 left to send him to the bench for good, with 21 points and seven rebounds. 

“We knew they were going to keep punching back at us the entire game. Their size really wore on us, and that’s something that we’re going to have to work on — but it’s nice to be able to work on that after a win, rather than after a loss,” Simon said. “We just haven’t faced bigs that have finished so consistently — frankly, in this day and age, you don’t see bigs that finish that consistently at any level.”

Plymouth missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with just over 30 seconds to play, and then had to foul three times to get into the bonus. 

Neither team shot well from the free-throw line in the final minutes with Plymouth going 5-for-10 from the line in the fourth. 

The Highlanders missed the front end of two straight one-and-ones, keeping it a one-possession game until J.D. Dell nailed both free throws with 11.8 left to all but seal it up. Plymouth got off a desperation heave at the buzzer, but missed. 

Samples finished with 17 points, while MacLellan had 17 to lead Plymouth, and Jacob Smith had 14.