ISHPEMING - With two teams working hard to improve as the regular season winds down, something had to give on Monday night.
It ended up being the Westwood High School boys basketball team, which couldn't do anything about visiting Ishpeming where no squad has ever been able to defend - at the free-throw line.
The Hematites made 15 of 17 free throws in the fourth quarter to hold off a late Patriots' charge and win 67-61.
Ishpeming’s Alex Briones (00) and Westwood’s Travis Swanson (43) vie for a rebound with a number of Patriots players surrounding them during a Mid-Peninsula Conference boys basketball game played at Westwood on Monday night. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)
"Westwood played well, but we were up to the challenge," Ishpeming head coach John Tiziani said about his team's first road victory of the season.
"We've been struggling ever since we had the late start to our season, and we've had some close ones (on the road) - a buzzer-beater in one and a three-point loss in another, for example."
The late start was due to the success of the Hematites' state championship football team, which took an added detour when the group was invited to New York City by Sports Illustrated in December.
That was a month the basketball team completed just one game while most other squads played at least four and some as many as eight games.
"Don't get me wrong, I rooted for the football team, and it says a lot about these guys," Tiziani said. "It's no coincidence my basketball team works hard and never gives up.
"That's why the football team did so well."
The team, though, doesn't have a lot of recent wins to show for its work, something that can be blamed on its schedule.
Monday's win snapped a five-game losing streak, but those contests were against four-fifths of the Upper Peninsula's top-rated teams in Class ABC - Negaunee, Marquette, Gwinn and Iron Mountain - and old Mid-Peninsula Conference rival Munising, which now leads the Central U.P. Conference.
Westwood, on the other hand, is finally starting to taste success after a rough 0-11 start that included a number of close games. The Pats are 4-3 in their last seven and now stand 4-14 overall, 3-8 in the M-PC.
"We have a really young team, and now we're starting to have that senior look of confidence instead of that junior deer-in-the-headlights look," Patriots head coach Ryan Reichel said.
His mostly junior team also includes a freshman starting point guard in Luke Gray and a 6-foot-4 senior starting center in Travis Swanson.
"But Travis missed all of last season, so he's had to show a lot of growth to get to where he is this year," Reichel said.
Swanson, who finished on Monday with 12 points and 10 rebounds, fouled out with 2:50 left and the Patriots down 56-50.
"T.J. went 6 of 8 from the field, but he had to spend eight minutes on the bench because of the fouls," Reichel said.
The Patriots did have 6-foot junior guard Justin Luke, who finished with 25 points, three assists and two steals. He scored 13 of those points in the final period.
He had a look of determination during the fourth-quarter comeback, which began in earnest after Reichel called timeout with 4:05 to go when Ishpeming's Dylan Mackey hit a triple to give the Hematites a 56-45 lead.
Luke dribbled around defenders and altered his shot while hanging in the air on several occasions to the delight of the Westwood faithful.
"I've been on him to get to the rim," Reichel said. "He's just now realizing all the potential he has on offense. In the second half, he was penetrating whenever the opportunity presented itself."
Westwood pulled within 60-57 with 1:35 left, but an Ishpeming semi-stall down the stretch forced the Pats to foul the Hematites' Alex Briones, who made 5 of 6 free throws in the final 52 seconds.
Briones finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, and according to Tiziani, looked the best he has so far after missing the first 10 weeks of the season with a broken bone in his foot.
"This was the first game back where Alex looked like he had his legs under him for all four quarters," Tiziani said.
Teammate Bobby Zhulkie appreciated that.
"He draws a lot of people to him, and that gives the rest of us openings," said the 5-10 junior, who cranked out three 3s and 11 points in the first quarter and finished with 17 points.
Senior Joe Lyle and junior Mitch Laurin added 10 points for the Hematites (7-10, 5-6), who committed just four turnovers all evening. Senior guard Josh Richards had 11 points for Westwood.
Ishpeming also won the JV game, 42-37.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.