ISHPEMING - Blame the nerves. Blame the defenses. But don't blame the effort.
The Negaunee and Westwood prep girls basketball teams struggled to get their offenses untracked in the first half. But once they took a few deep breaths at intermission, the second half was the kind of show fans expected from two of the top teams in the Mid-Peninsula Conference at the Patriots' gym Friday night.
Westwood used a decisive run early in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 43-31 victory over the visiting Miners.
Combined with Ishpeming's league victory over Norway on Friday, there is now a logjam near the top of the M-PC, with the Hematites at 4-0, Negaunee 5-1 and the Patriots improving to 3-1.
Westwood improved to 5-5 overall, while the Miners slipped to 6-4.
The first half ended with Westwood leading just 12-11.
Both teams' hounding defenses never gave ball handlers a break, but there were a number of offensive breakdowns, too, with numerous air balls, layup attempts that completely missed the rim and passes thrown wildly out of bounds.
"I think we were a little too pumped up when we started," said Westwood senior and defensive specialist Elizabeth Dauphinais-VanBuren, who finished with 12 points, five rebounds and five steals. "I felt like we had more intensity with all the steals and stuff.
"This was the best we've played, the first time we've really played together as a team.
"Everyone was talking a lot, and we worked together and everybody encouraged each other the whole game," she added.
Negaunee coach Brandon Sager had to agree that Westwood was the team that wanted it more.
"We came out kind of flat. But give Westwood credit, I think we got outhustled tonight," he said. "Normally, we're the team that plays the most aggressively.
"But they're a very physical team and I think that shocked some of our girls."
VanBuren quickly put her stamp on the game. In the game's first 3 1/2 minutes, she made two steals, almost had another she couldn't quite corral, and was fouled to draw a trip to the free-throw line that gave her team a 1-0 lead.
She was more proud of her team at the start of the second half, however.
"Coach (Kurt Corcoran) always says whoever wins the first three minutes of the second half will usually win the game," VanBuren said.
In the first 3:20 of the third quarter, VanBuren made a pair of layups on fast breaks, the first one ending with a successful free throw for a three-point play after she somersaulted to break her fall on a Negaunee foul.
Senior teammate Caitlin Hewitt and sophomore Hannah Salmi also made baskets as the Patriots extended their one-point halftime lead to 21-15.
The Miners weren't about to go away, though. NHS juniors Adena Anderson and Ashley Tresedder swished 3-pointers in the final 1:45 of the quarter to pull their team to within 30-25 entering the final period.
Negaunee then went cold, scoring just three points in the fourth quarter up until the game's final 30 seconds.
With senior Amber Salo scoring her team's first eight points of the period, Westwood pulled away to end any doubt about the game's outcome.
Salo finished as the game's top scorer with 14 points, while Tresedder paced Negaunee with seven.
The Patriots also won the junior varsity game, 57-45.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is email@example.com.