Munising girls basketball team battles to the end before falling to Chassell in Class D regionals

Munising’s Nykole Fitzgibbon, right, grabs a rebound from Chassell’s Sydney Danison during a Class D high school girls basketball regional semifinal game played Tuesday at Kingsford. (Ironwood Daily Globe photo by Jason Juno)

KINGSFORD — This was the game they always wanted.

The No. 2 Chassell Panthers felt slighted week after week when they had to look at the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association basketball poll each Tuesday and see their name below the Munising Mustangs.

But all they could do was let that slightly irk them, put it away in the back of their minds and go to work with the hope that one day they could prove who’s better. 

That day was Tuesday in a regional semifinal, and what a statement the Panthers made.

Chassell overcame a Mustangs defensive unit that matched their speed and athleticism for a true grind-it-out battle that required near-perfect offensive execution for either team to score.

And down the stretch in Kingsford, Milly Allen and Sydney Danison delivered the clutch plays necessary as senior leaders during March. It all resulted in a 52-46 Chassell win and served as the U.P.’s introduction to the best team from the Copper Country.

“We’ve been waiting for this all season,” said Allen, whose team faces Bark River-Harris on Thursday back in Kingsford for the regional title. “We knew it was going to be a big game that we’d have to push hard in.”

The two teams played like mirror images, with constant defensive pressure on the perimeter where neither team was able to consistently attack off the dribble, along with athletic bigs inside to obstruct every shot at the rim.

Defense owned the night — Chassell made just 17 of 49 shots (35 percent) and had 16 turnovers, while Munising finished 15 of 44 (34 percent) and turned it over 19 times. 

“It was a lot tougher than I thought,” Chassell coach Brandi Hainault said of being able to score. “We matched up pretty evenly, and the difference I thought was the guards.”

That would be Allen, who led Chassell with 16 points, and junior Jenna Pietila with 12.

Pietila kept Chassell afloat with her nine first-half points while the team shot just 6 of 24 and trailed 23-20 at the half.

Then it was Allen’s turn, and the Copper Mountain Conference Player of the Year strengthened her case as an All-U.P. Dream Team selection with a clutch second half when she scored 14 of her points. 

Allen ended Chassell’s 3-point drought that lasted over a game-and-a-half for a 25-23 lead with 6:25 left in the third. Then, in the fourth, she secured a defensive rebound and pushed the length of the court for a transition layup for a 35-34 advantage. On Chassell’s next possession, she tossed it to Danison in the high post, lost her defender and swished a 3 from the top of the key for a 38-34 lead with 5:38 remaining. Chassell (23-1) would not trail after that. 

“You just kind of know your role and know when you have to step up for your team,” Allen said.

But Munising had one final push in what was a constant back-and-forth. Up to that point, neither team had led by more than seven. And Chassell had already answered a seven-point deficit with a 7-0 run of its own before Munising senior Kianne Wendt swished a corner 3 for the 23-20 halftime lead. 

So Munising was ready to respond again, and it was Wendt converting two free throws before finding junior Michaela Werner over the top for a layup to tie the game 38-38 with just over three minutes left.

But Werner’s layup was just one of three baskets for the Mustangs (22-2) in the fourth quarter as they shot 3 of 14 in the final period.

“Chassell tightened up their defense in the second half,” Munising coach Matt Mattson said. “We just got clogged up a little bit. We didn’t have good entry passes to the post and a lot of that was due to Chassell’s defense.

“It was a battle. … (Chassell) made more plays down the stretch than we did.”

Wendt finished with a game-high 19 points and Werner added 14. 

It was a challenging night for Danison, who battled foul trouble — she had three fouls with more than five minutes left in the second quarter and picked up her fourth with 2:27 left in the third.

Danison went against an athletic post defender in Wendt who challenged her more than anyone she’s faced this season. But through it all, she didn’t let it affect her and still managed to score one of the game’s biggest baskets. 

With 2:15 left, she caught a pass on the right block with her back to the basket, turned to her left and connected on a shot as she was fouled. She added the free throw for a three-point play and 42-38 advantage.

Danison finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double. 

“I just remembered learning from going against (teammate) Sophia (Huhta) in practice that I needed to have my footwork right and to finish strong on all my shots,” Danison said.

Danison’s basket served as the key moment in Chassell’s 10-2 run that sealed the game. Pietila capped it with a fast-break layup that was set up by a steal from Allen. Leading 48-40 with 37 seconds left, the Chassell faithful boisterously showed their approval for a Panther team poised to win the first-ever regional contest in girls basketball history.

“The best part about this team is that they don’t give up,” Hainault said. “They almost get better as they go on.”

Mattson didn’t think senior Kelsea Ackerman would be available due to a torn meniscus. But Ackerman suited up and tested her knee in pregame warmups and felt good enough to give it a go. She came off the bench and entered the game midway through the first quarter before playing sporadically as she battled foul trouble.

“She couldn’t play the defense she normally does,” Mattson said. “But she’s a senior and she’s started over 80 games for us, so we let it roll a little bit with her, and I appreciate her effort.”