EAST LANSING - The Houghton girls' basketball team couldn't make enough shots to have a shot Thursday.
Spending most of their MHSAA Class C state semifinal with a shooting percentage in the teens, the Gremlins were dismissed from Michigan State's Breslin Center in East Lansing by Saginaw Nouvel Catholic Central, 44-32.
"We thought we got some good opportunities to shoot in the first half from 15 feet and out, but again, it was a tough shooting performance for us, our worst of the year and I really do think their defensive efforts affected that," Houghton coach Julie Filpus said.
Alexa Johnson drives past a Saginaw Nouvel player in the first half of Thursday’s MHSAA Class C girls’ basketball semifinal at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Brandon Veale)
With the luxury of all-state forward Taylor Hengesbach, a 5-foot-10 senior, 5-9 sophomore Rachel Buckingham and 6-2 junior Rachel McInerney in the frontcourt, the Panthers (25-2) settled into a 2-3 zone defense and challenged Houghton to shoot them out of it. Instead, the Gremlins (23-3) gave the Panther frontcourt many opportunities to collect rebounds.
McInerney had 12 defensive rebounds, as part of a comprehensive double-double of 16 points and 17 boards.
"They're tough post players and we tried our best to front and to just stop them, but they're good all-around basketball players," Houghton senior Blaire Zenner said.
She and junior Elisa Jurmu drew the unenviable assignment of matching them on both ends. Houghton used lanky sophomore guard Sydney Dillinger to keep Nouvel from using most traditional post moves, but it was only so effective, as their trio combined for 35 of Nouvel's 44 points.
"They did a really good job of closing down the post," McInerney said. "There was always three girls closing down as soon as possible. We had to adjust to it and pass more to the outside. I just had to work as hard as I could to get steals and rebounds."
Houghton's fate may have been sealed early. The Panthers, who averaged 32.9 points against per game this season, scored the first 11 points over the initial 4:44. In the same stretch, the Gremlins had five misses (three from outside the arc) and three turnovers.
Filpus said the game-opening run wasn't about nerves as it was about frustration.
"We handled their pressure," Filpus said. "They might have forced a couple of turnovers in the first half, but the part that frustrated us is we feel we have a good in side-outside attack and their length really affected our inside attack."
Jurmu broke the drought by driving hard to the hoop for an and-one with 3:01 left in the first quarter. The Gremlins' top scoring threat went hard at McInerney all night, but the junior repelled many of them, recording all five of her blocks on Jurmu shot attempts.
Jurmu still co-led Houghton in scoring with 11 points, but five were free throws. She went 3-for-16 from the field.
Houghton's offense found a gear late in the first and into the second, closing to within 17-10 at the midpoint, but Nouvel expanded its lead to 13 late (11 at the half), forcing the Gremlins to hope for a second-half run that never quite materialized.
The latter periods were fairly even, but the Gremlins couldn't take the second digit off the Panthers' lead until the last two minutes.
Alexa Johnson was the other co-leader for Houghton's offense, knocking down three second-half triples en route to her 11. She, Zenner and Ashley Laux got a chance to make their final varsity appearances on the state's biggest stage, a fact that didn't go unrecognized.
"It's honestly surreal just being here. Just being here is a blessing and we've cherished every minute of it," Zenner said.