EAST LANSING - Fans would be forgiven if they thought they were watching two teams that showed up five minutes before game time on Thursday afternoon.
Neither Negaunee nor Laingsburg looked sharp for most of the opening two quarters of their MHSAA Class C boys basketball semifinal game on Thursday afternoon at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
"I was hoping that we might need two or three minutes to get our legs under us and calm the emotions of playing in this game," Negaunee coach Mike O'Donnell said. "But we seemed to be out of sync, out of rhythm for a long time in that first half."
Negaunee senior forward Brock Weaver leaps for a layup Thursday during an MHSAA Class C state semifinal at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. (Photo by Matt Hallowell for The Mining Journal)
The Wolfpack, who hail from a town located only 15 miles from East Lansing, seemed to play under control only to miss shot after shot, whether it be layups, 3-pointers or anything between. They hit on just 7 of 27 first-half shots (25.9 percent) despite a number of them being uncontested bunnies.
Negaunee, on the other hand, had the old-fashioned jitters coming out of the gate after winning their quarterfinal game in Gaylord less than 48 hours earlier, 56-55, over Maple City Glen Lake.
Miners players looked uncharacteristically tentative playing in the big MSU arena and against a four-guard outfit that could match their defensive prowess in turning seemingly safe passes and routine dribbles into steals and fast-break opportunities.
"Give (Laingsburg) credit," O'Donnell said. "Their zone (defense) threw us for a little bit, because we were expecting man-to-man from them. That's just about all we'd seen out of them.
"Their 1-2-2 zone was a different one that we've seen all year, too. Instead of packing it in back at the basket, they pushed it out toward the perimeter against us.
"I think the zone threw us for a loop, especially when on top of that were the jitters we felt in the beginning."
Negaunee also struggled with its shots, making 6 of 21 (28.6 percent) in the first half.
Some other observers thought a different shooting background can play into poor shooting early, too. Small schools generally play in tight gyms with the outside walls just behind the backboards providing a static background. At Breslin, however, are two decks of seating going around the entire stadium, including behind the baskets, with a varied - and often moving - target for the always-popular 3-point shots.
Nevertheless, the Miners looked like they found a spark when junior guard Eric Lori hit back-to-back 3s about 55 seconds apart early in the second quarter, turning a 10-6 deficit into a 12-10 lead.
But Negaunee continued to suffer with turnovers due largely to the ball-hawking Wolfpack. Their 10 first-half steals accounted for nearly all of Negaunee's 12 turnovers in that span.
Despite that, the Miners trailed just 18-14 at halftime, but it still bothered O'Donnell after the game.
"We had a missed opportunity in the first half," O'Donnell said. "If we play well, we could've built up a lead, especially when (Laingsburg leading scorer and rebounder Jake) Zielinski picked up his second foul and he had to sit down."
Negaunee had done well playing with a lead all season. Before this week, only two of their first 23 wins were by less than 16 points, both against Gwinn in the regular season. The Miners turned that around in the district tournament, capturing that title by 30 points over the Modeltowners in the Gwinn gym.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.