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UNCHARTED TERRITORY: No. 13 Port Huron holds off No. 19 Dakota to stay unbeaten, head to 1st-ever MAC tourney title game

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 18, 2020, 11:06 pm

PORT HURON — It started with a trickle that became a deluge.

No. 13-ranked Port Huron had hit a couple 3-pointers earlier in Tuesday’s Macomb Area Conference tournament semifinal, but it started raining 3s in the fourth, as the Big Reds used the downpour to build a six-point lead, then held on to beat No. 19 Macomb Dakota, 60-56.

The win sends the Big Reds on to Saturday’s MAC Red/White tournament title game Saturday at Warren Cousino, an improbable enough scenario for any White Division team over the years, but even more unlikely when you consider the following.

“We’d never won a MAC tournament game (before this year). So this is like great for us. And I’m super excited, sorry. You can probably tell by my voice. … It is uncharted territory, but we’ll take it, for sure,” said coach Becky Gilbert, who was still shaking with excitement while she did postgame interviews.

“Unbelievable. How many can say they’re 19-0, and they took down Dakota, who’s like a powerhouse in the state. They beat us two years ago by 33 points. Who would’ve thought, right?”

The win also puts the Big Reds on the cusp of a perfect regular season, which is just as unprecedented in program history.

“It’s amazing. This feeling? It’s just amazing. We’re the first team in PHHS history to have this success, and it’s huge for us. For our coaches, our program, everyone,” junior Emma Trombly said. “Oh, it’s been so much fun. I love my teammates and my coach, and — winning, it’s awesome. We worked so hard, and that’s really showing right now.”

The Big Reds returned everyone from a 12-9 squad that lost by three to cross-town rival Port Huron Northern in the district opener a year ago, giving them the belief they could be pretty good this season. 

But this?

“I knew we had a lot of potential to go, because last year, we were all on varsity, and this is one more year to be comfortable. It’s just an incredible feeling,” said senior Jenna Holzberger. “It’s been incredible. It’s my senior year, and we’re going out big. All of our hard work during the summer, all of our long practices, it’s really paying off in becoming successful.”

It appeared to be a defensive struggle through the first half, with Dakota (15-3) leading 24-19 at the half, but both teams kicked up the offense after halftime. Port Huron had the game tied up within minutes of the second half starting, forcing a timeout from Dakota coach Phil McCune.

“Our thought was put the pressure on them, have them call the first timeout, and it ended up the other way around,” McCune said. “Give them a lot of credit. They play with a lot of intensity. They’ve got a lot of pressure on their shoulders, being undefeated. It didn’t look like it when you watched them out there. The first quarter, they might’ve been a little tight, but the last three quarters, they played as well as any team we’ve seen this year. They’re going to be a tough team to beat in the finals, whoever they play.”

There were five lead changes in the third quarter, but the Cougars took a 39-37 advantage into the fourth, only to have the Big Reds start raining 3s. 

“Port Huron, I don’t know if they’ve ever shot better than that. That was quite a shooting display. We’d tried some different things, and they made big shots when it counted,” McCune said. 

“Luckily I had four timeouts there, and I kept calling timeouts, and basically that’s what I said. ‘Just relax, and get out on their shooters. Talk on defense.’ All the things we know we gotta do. They’re very patient. The first passer’s not looking to shoot right away. They’re just moving the ball around to when they can get the right shooter to shoot. Teams are really looking to stop 11 (Trombly) — she’s a very, very good player — and then somebody else steps up for them. … 

You take one (player) away, you take two away, and the next thing you know, the third player’s hitting a 3. They take her away, then the fourth player’s hitting a 3. In all that barrage, we were still right there.”

Holzberger’s second 3-pointer of the fourth quarter was the third in a row by the Big Reds, giving them a 49-46 lead with 5:27 left. They’d add one more, and get a few defensive stops, sitting on a 56-50 lead with 1:17 left.

“Man. I’ll take it tonight,” Gilbert said. “We have a lot of girls who can shoot on the outside. I know they were really stopping (Madison) Landschoot, but No. 1, Jenna, (Holzberger) and No. 23, Morgan (James), really stepped up tonight for us.  … That’s the great thing about our team: Teams are going to stop some of our players, but we have a whole team of girls. It’s a special group.”

The Cougars forced three straight turnovers, though, and turned them into a pair of 3-pointers — one by Ella Burger with 1:07 left off a steal by Carly Moran to cut the deficit to three points, then one by Moran herself with 49 seconds left to tie it up at 56-56.

“They put the pressure on, and we made two big 3s to tie the game up,” McCune said. “We talked in the huddle with a little over a minute to go, said ‘We’re not going to give up. We’ve got this.’ Give them a lot of credit — as a coach, I love these kids; they play really, really hard.” 

The Big Reds got a pair of stops — one in which a potential go-ahead layup by the Cougars rimmed out — and Julia Gilbert made three of four free throws in the final 37 seconds to give the Big Reds their final lead. Trombly hit two at the line with 2.6 seconds left to ice it.

“It’s a lot of momentum. We were up by six, and I thought ‘We’ve just gotta take care of the ball,’ and we let them right back in it. But to see the girls fight through that. That’s something they really worked through, and took care of business,” Gilbert said, admitting she had an inkling about this team in the summer. “I knew we were going to have a great year, I honestly did. It’s just a great group. They work hard for me all summer, and they play hard for me year-round. It’s just good to see them be this successful.”

Burger led all scorers with 21 points, while Hannah Toutant had 12 and Cameron Grant had 10 for Dakota. Morgan James had 19 points off the bench to lead Port Huron, while Trombly had 15 and Holzberger 12.