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Timely charge helps Howell beat Canton for its first-ever KLAA association title

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 3, 2020, 10:45 pm

HOWELL — If you look at who Tony Honkala had to guard in last year’s historic playoff run to the semifinals for the Howell Highlanders, it’s a who’s who of hoops in the Mitten: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Lorne Bowman, Oxford’s Trey Townsend, Ypsilanti Lincoln’s Emoni Bates. 

But the lanky, 6-foot-2 guard may have saved one of his biggest defensive plays for his final season.

In a two-point game, Honkala drew a charge from Canton’s Ben Stesiak with 18.2 seconds left in Tuesday’s Kensington Lakes Activities Association title game, helping the Highlanders seal up a 52-48 win to dethrone the defending association champs. 

It was the first-ever association championship for the Highlanders (16-4), who hadn’t won an overall league title since claiming the old Kensington Valley Conference crown in 1996.

“Since we didn’t get to do it last year, it’s something new. Enjoyable for the community,” Honkala said. “Something to build off of for the tournament.”

The Chiefs (13-7) blew the Highlanders out in last year’s title game, winning by 20. But that was ironically the last loss Howell had before the semifinal defeat at the hands of the eventual Division 1 champ, Ypsilanti Lincoln, and Bates. 

“It’s big for us. We’ve had two goals so far that we were able to go for, with the division championship and the conference championship. We’ve crossed both of those off. At this point, we feel pretty good about what we’ve done, but we’re not going to sit back and think about that until everything’s all said and done,” Howell coach Nick Simon said. “We’ve got a lot more goals in front of us, and I think four more of those trophies to win. It’s good to get the first two out of the way, but we’ve got a couple more ahead of us.”

Tuesday’s game was one of big momentum swings, and big runs.

Canton ended the first quarter on a 7-0 run to lead 18-12, then Howell scored the final eight points of the first half to take a 28-25 lead into the break. That Highlander run extended into the second half, and stretched to 13-0, as they capitalized on two technical foul free throws, then a 3-pointer by Honkala on the ensuing possession to lead 33-25 less than 30 seconds into the third. 

Howell wouldn’t score again in the quarter, as Canton ripped off the final 11 points — aided by a pair of consecutive three-point opportunities by Stesiak and a pair of trips to the stripe for technical foul free throws of his own — to lead 36-33 going to the fourth.

“It was back-and-forth the whole game, lots of weird calls, charges,” Honkala said. “We never really knew what was going to happen, but we just fought through it.”

Honkala hit a 3 to tie it with 7:40 left to play, then gave the Highlanders the lead for good with a turn-around jumper from the post with 5:25 left. 

“You know what we did? We all took a big, deep breath. I got a warning, we had a couple of technicals — it was the heat of the moment; I’m not mad at anybody. It’s a good lesson to learn, that we’ve got to keep our composure, all of us involved,” Simon said of the thought process entering the fourth. “But we just all took a big, collective deep breath and said ‘Hey, we weathered the storm, their big run. It’s only a three-point game. Let’s just get back to what we do well.’ And I thought we did that.”

Honkala’s 3 on the break with 4:45 left made it a 43-39 game, then he scored a driving bucket with 2:15 left to make it 45-41. After that, it was a matter of playing a little defense, and hitting free throws.

The possession arrow favored Canton on a jump ball with 28.7 seconds left, and the Highlanders sitting on a 45-43 lead. That’s when Honkala drew the foul on Stesiak to get the ball back for Howell.

“Pretty big. When we played them two weeks ago, I took a charge same spot on him, to win the game, too. It’s just crazy how the same thing happened,” Honkala said, admitting Tuesday’s was probably the biggest he’s ever drawn. “I noticed at the end of the game, when it’s a close game, he just puts his head down and drives, and doesn’t really care. So I just stood there and took it.”

It’s something his coach has seen him do before.

“Oh, yeah. When Tony’s locked in on defense, he can make sensational defensive plays. And he’s done that. … it’s what good senior leaders do. He made a huge play there,” Simon said, never doubting for a second what the call would be. “These guys are good officials, and that was a clear charge. I actually knew right away that was going to be a charge. I thought he did a great job of planting. I thought, if anything, they might not call it. But he was there.”

Point guard Bobby Samples was 4-for-4 from the line in the fourth, but with the Canton defense double-teaming him on inbounds plays, the ball went instead to Peyton Ward — who’d also picked up much of the ball-handling duties with Samples in foul trouble for much fo the first three quarters. 

Ward missed one free throw with 1:21 left, splitting at the line that time, but nailed his final four attempts in the final 16.8 seconds to seal the game.

“He’s been a very good free-throw shooter, very clutch. He’s only shot about 30-35 free throws the entire year, but I think he’s shooting about 80-82 percent,” Simon said. “Ken (Samples), my assistant, when he missed that first one, I said, ‘I think that’s the first clutch one he’s missed.’ We had a lot confidence in him, because they double-teamed Bobby, and Peyton being able to hit those, then that changes the dynamic at the end.”

Stesiak would hit one more layup in the final seven seconds, giving him 29 points for the game. Jake Vickers had 10 points before fouling out in the final two minutes. Honkala led Howell with 20 points, while Will Hann had 14 off the bench. 

“Man, give Canton a ton of credit. They are relentless. Vickers is a monster. Stesiak is a monster. They did a really, really, really good job. And that was a very even game, that we were very fortunate to come out on top of,” Simon said. “He (Stesiak) played a heck of a game. Coming in, we tried to stop Vickers, and I thought, for the most part, we did a pretty good job on him. I thought Danny (Honkala) and Griffin (Smith) did a really nice job keeping him out of sorts for a long time. 

“But Stesiak did a really, really, really nice job getting to four and five feet, and then he makes every one of those shots. He’s a great player, and a great senior for them. I’m not surprised by that at all, but luckily our guys were able to overcome that, and make the big plays at the end.”