Bold decision-making: Westwood Patriots girls basketball coach Kurt Corcoran throws wrinkle at West Iron County to turn tide in MHSAA Division 3 regional semifinal win

Westwood's Tessa Leece, center, grabs a rebound off a shot by teammate Natalie Prophet as she is fouled by West Iron County's Colbi Laturi, left, in the third quarter of their MHSAA Division 3 girls basketball regional tournament semifinal game played in Escanaba on Monday. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“We figured they probably weren’t prepared for it because we haven’t run it all year.” — Kurt Corcoran, Westwood head coach, on employing the run-and-jump pressure defense vs. West Iron County

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ESCANABA — A bold coaching decision during the middle of the third quarter might just have saved the Westwood’s girls basketball season here Monday night.

Trailing 35-30 with just over two minutes left in the period of a Division 3 regional semifinal, Patriots’ coach Kurt Corcoran decided to put on a full-court press they hadn’t ran all year.

It worked as the Patriots rallied past West Iron County for a 50-46 win.

The win sends Westwood to the regional championship game against Charlevoix to be played in Sault Ste. Marie at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The Upper Peninsula’s No. 2 ranked team in Divisions 1-3, the Wykons led 35-28 with 2:38 left in the third quarter after a lay-up by junior center Emily Nelson. After the No. 1-ranked Patriots answered on the other end, Corcoran called timeout to set up a run-and-jump press.

The press didn’t appear to faze the Wykons (19-3) at first, as they broke it and got clean looks at the basket on the other end. However, they missed on those clean looks and momentum swung back toward Westwood.

The Patriots (23-1) went on an 8-3 run to tie the game at 38 on a lay-in by freshman forward Natalie Prophet with 5:43 left.

“We’ve been working on our run-and-jump press,” Corcoran said. “We’ve been working on it and saving it for the right moment.

“It’s kind of a scary decision when you’re down seven in the middle of the third quarter. You don’t want to give the girls the impression you’re panicking, but we figured they (Wykons) probably weren’t prepared for it because we haven’t run it all year.

“They ended up missing two lay-ups off of it, so it looks like I made the right call. If they hadn’t, I would have looked like an imbecile.”

Mid-Peninsula Conference Player of the Year Tessa Leece gave the Patriots a bit of separation on a jumper from the right wing to increase their lead to 43-40 with 2:03 remaining. After free throws by junior guard Madelyn Koski, they held a 48-43 lead with 38 ticks to play.

The Wykons responded with a triple by senior guard Katarina Serbentas to make it 48-46 on the next possession, then were forced to foul with 17.9 seconds left.

Junior forward Karlie Patron stepped to the charity stripe and drained a pair of free throws to push Westwood’s lead to 50-46, and the Wykons missed two looks at 3-point attempts on the other end as time ran out.

“We weren’t shocked we came back,” Koski said. “We knew we’re going to win this game. We had a little extra motivation because we weren’t picked to win and we wanted to prove that we’re the best team in the U.P.”

Patron, who shot 5 of 6 from the charity stripe and made numerous big free throws in the fourth quarter, echoed those comments.

“We just knew we weren’t going to lose the whole game,” she said. “There was no panic. I would describe us (as) a stone-cold team. We have ice in our veins.”

She also joked about how she calmed herself down at the free throw line.

“Coach Corcoran is always in my ear telling me to follow through,” she said. “When he says that it makes me calm down because I miss when I don’t do that.”

It was a tough way to end the year for the Wykons, who led 24-23 at the half after rallying from an early 7-0 hole. Coach Eric Shamion thought the game changed when the Patriots applied their press.

“That’s where the game changed. We had a five- or seven-point lead and then they put their press on, which led to easy baskets for them and eventually gave them the lead,” he said. “We were unable to recover.

“Because of their pressure and deflections, we were unable to get the ball in the post. I like our game plan. I think if we handled the pressure from their press differently, it could have been a different result.”

Koski and Patron said they felt the pressure was getting to the Wykons.

“We could sense they panicked a little bit,” Koski said. “The point of the press was to swing the momentum and take them out of their offense.”

The Wykons had great success going inside to Nelson in the first half. Corcoran knew they had to find a way to take her out of the game.

“Emily Nelson dominated in the first half,” he said. “We knew coming in we had to keep the ball out of her hands. We wanted to front her when we needed to and muscle her to keep her out of the lane.

“In the second half we ran a zone and sandwiched her. We came out and tried to utilize that and the girls executed it well.”

Koski led the Patriots with a game-high 24 points, including four triples while shooting 7 of 12 from the field. Leece added 13 points.

Nelson led the Wykons with 13 points and junior forward Eden Golliher chipped in with 11.