NEGAUNEE - Brandon Sager didn't shy away from the importance of Monday night's Mid-Peninsula Conference girls basketball game.
"I kind of laid it out in front of them tonight," the Negaunee coach said about his pregame talk before playing Ishpeming at Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium. "I told them it was for first place.
"But I also said don't be nervous about it, be excited and have fun.
Negaunee’s Ashley Veale drives to the hoop past Ishpeming’s Jordann Grigg during the third quarter at Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium on Monday. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
"They've worked hard to get to this point, and there aren't very many teams that get an opportunity like this."
That opportunity was a chance to take firm control of the M-PC race, which is what Negaunee did after securing a 48-40 victory.
At 5-1, the Hematites were a game behind the 6-0 Miners and needed the win to move into a tie for the top spot. Instead, Negaunee improved to 7-0 and took a two-game lead on Ishpeming, which at 5-2 is still in second place alone.
"We seemed to be a step slow all night," Ishpeming coach Mark Dellangelo said. "Negaunee came out with a little more fire than we did."
It showed early as the Miners, now 10-1 overall, raced to an 8-0 lead in the middle of the first quarter and 13-4 at the end of the period.
The Hematites (7-5) had trouble finding any open looks, and even when they did, often rushed their shots.
The lead got to as big as 19-8 before an 8-2 Ishpeming streak in the final two minutes of the second quarter pulled the visitors within 21-16 at halftime.
The final push included a basket by junior Gabby Croley, just the third Hematite field goal of the half, along with 6-of-6 free-throw shooting.
"We played really well as a team on defense," NHS senior Taylor Wilber said. "We jumped to the ball and played good help defense.
"The idea is to not leave any open looks at the basket. But on offense, we wanted to be patient so we could find an open shot and execute our plays."
Dellangelo had a few aces up his sleeve that he pulled out at halftime, however.
He amped up the defensive pressure, including in the backcourt, and it paid off with a 6-0 run in the first minute and a half of the third quarter to give Ishpeming a 22-21 lead. It included a 3-pointer by senior and top scorer Alesha O'Brien, who was kept off the scoreboard in the first half.
The teams traded the lead several more times before the well went dry for the Hematites. They were held scoreless for more than 6 1/2 minutes spanning the third and fourth quarters, turning a 27-25 advantage into a 36-27 deficit with 7:10 to go. They never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
"We might've spent too much gas getting back into the game," Dellangelo said. "Negaunee just seemed to have that extra gear they could turn to when they needed it."
A big cog in that gear was Miners senior guard Ashley Veale.
"Ashley struggled before halftime, but she came back to play well in the second half," Sager said. "Ashley pulled it together, and (junior center) Rosalie (Anderson) looked good the whole game."
Veale finished with 10 points, seven after intermission, along with dishing out four assists, while Anderson recorded game highs of 13 points and seven rebounds. Anderson made 5 of 6 free throws while the rest of her team was just 6 of 13 at the line.
Ishpeming was led by Croley with 12 points and sophomore Jessica Spencer with 11 points and six rebounds. Senior Jordann Grigg had nine points and O'Brien finished with six.
The Hematites won the JV game, 28-23.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.