CRYSTAL FALLS—For most of the first half, the end-of-season battle between North Central and Forest Park Feb. 25 was a back-and-forth battle, with four lead changes and eight tie scores.
But once the Jets turned up the heat on this icy night, they stayed ahead and earned a 76-64 win, on their way to a perfect season record. (They clinched it with a 91-58 romp over Mid Peninsula Feb. 27.)
Coach Chirs Nocerini’s Trojans, meanwhile, end the regular season at 16-3 overall and 11-3 in the Skyline Conference. They faced Bessemer March 3 to start the District 127 tournament.
North Central fans—two fan buses, plus those who drove over—helped pack the Eddie Chambers Gym, and the Trojans wanted nothing more than to spoil their road trip.
Austin Snell led the Trojans’ charge in the first quarter with six points, and Lee Graff had four. Back-to-back baskets by Snell and Raymond Tomasik gave FP its first lead, 10-8.
After North Central moved in front 13-12, FP finished the first quarter strong: two free throws by Kam Krajewski, a rebound basket by Austin Carlson and Snell’s hoop off Jeff Johnson’s feed. When Johnson converted a nice assist to start the second quarter, Forest Park led 20-13.
Stung by the Trojans’ 8-0 rally, the Jets fired back. Baskets by Travis Vincent and Jason Whitens and a three from Rob Granquist cut the Trojan lead to two, 22-20.
North Central finished the half strong, rallying 15-7 on a two and a three by Trevor Ekberg, two hoops by Vincent, Whitens’ free throws and hoops by both Rob and Josh Granquist.
Josh Grandquist’s basket came just at the halftime horn, putting the Jets on top 35-31. He started the second half by burying a three: 38-31. Uh-oh.
The Trojans battled fiercely to keep pace with the older, taller Jets. After Rob Granquist’s three from the left corner put North Central up 47-38 midway through the third, FP battled back within three (47-44) on two baskets by Carlson and Graff’s hoop.
But moments later, Graff was called for his third foul and then his fourth. Rob Granquist followed both fouls by burying uncontested threes from the right corner. The Jets’ lead was back up to nine, 55-46.
“When Lee has to sit on the bench for that amount of time with fouls,” said the coach, “that hurts us. Lee’s our go-to guy a lot.” He scored six in the third quarter before exiting.
Forest Park got within four early in the fourth quarter, only to see North Central go on 7-0 run, including Vincent’s basket and three free throws, for a 63-52 lead. Baskets by Krajewski and Nocerini got the lead down to two possessions (69-64) with 1:03 left, but the Jets put the win away by going 7 of 8 at the free throw line.
“Daniel stepped it up and kept us in it.”
For the Trojans, Nocerini and Graff shared the team scoring lead with 16 points each. Carlson had 10 and Snell scored eight. Rebounding was nearly dead-level: 34 to 35.
Vincent led the Jets with 24 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. Rob Granquist had 16 (four of his team’s six threes), Ekberg had 15, Whitens had 10 and Josh Granquist added nine.
Nocerini talked about the play of Krajewski, a sophomore, off the bench. “Good minutes against a taller kid. He can defend all over the floor. He’s going to be fun to watch these next two years.”
For now, it’s all about this year. To the coaches, last week’s game was a preview of a possible regional tourney match-up. Last year, the Jets beat FP 59-50 in the regional finals on their way to the state Class D semifinals.
“That’s a good team,” said the coach. “I’m just hoping we get one more crack at them.”
Jets 13 22 20 21 -- 76
Trojans 18 13 19 14 -- 64
• The Trojans opened the District 127 tournament at Ewen-Trout Creek March 3 when they faced a strong Bessemer squad. The winner plays in the first semifinal game against Watersmeet March 5 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time (5 Central).
The championship game is Friday, March 7, at 7 p.m. Eastern (6 Central). The other teams in the district are Ewen-Trout Creek, Wakefield-Marenisco and Republic-Michigamme.
The Class D regional tournament starts in Escanaba March 10. The ETC district winner faces the Painesdale-Jeffers winner at 6 p.m. Eastern Time (5 Central).