HOLCOMBE — The race for the East Lakeland Conference championship is far from over.
But the Lake Holcombe boys basketball team took a big step toward it on Tuesday evening, knocking off Bruce 55-42 in a matchup of the league’s top two teams.
Lake Holcombe (9-2, 5-0) never trailed in the contest, scoring just seconds into the game on a basket from Luke Geist and racing out to an early 13-2 lead. The Chieftains would have an answer for each run from the Red Raiders (8-3, 3-1) who trimmed the deficit to as few as eight in the second half before the Chieftains closed strong to clinch the win and move one-and-a-half games in front of Bruce in the conference standings.
“We knew it was a big one going in,” Lake Holcombe senior Brady Webster said. “So we prepared a lot and were ready to go.”
Lake Holcombe limited Bruce to just one basket in the first 13 minutes of the game, getting an early double-digit advantage. The Chieftain up-tempo pressure defense made life tough for the Red Raiders all game long, forcing several turnovers and less-than-idea shots at the basket.
“We need to press,” Lake Holcombe coach Joy Webster said. “We’re not going to score on every press, but if we can keep them in the press it’s going to wear those teams down. We’ve been saying it, we can wear other teams down and get teams to start to panic.”
Offensively Lake Holcombe got a season-best 22 points from Kaden Kinney, 20 coming in the second half. Trent Novak added 17 points while Brady Webster scored seven points and Geist chipped in with six as a part of a Chieftain offense that entered Tuesday’s game averaging 61 points per game and is not shy about sharing the ball.
“This team is out to win this and they’re out playing team ball,” coach Webster said. “If somebody is open they’re going to get them the ball.”
Connor Checkalski scored 14 points to lead Bruce.
They’re not free
One of the weak links of Lake Holcombe’s hot start to the season has been the team’s performance at the free throw line. The Chieftains entered Tuesday’s game shooting just over 44 percent from the charity stripe but shot a crisp 16 of 22 (73 percent) from the line in the win. That included making 13 of 16 attempts in the second half to help maintain the lead.
“We shoot a lot of free throws in practice because free throws are going to win the close ballgames,” coach Webster said. “I really think free throws won the game here.”
Lake Holcombe’s two losses on the season have come in nonconference play — at home to Rib Lake 60-45 on Nov. 30 and at Mondovi 59-38 on Dec. 29.
Two common threads in both those defeats were early deficits and a lack of energy, things the team has said it’s focusing on more now and had plenty of in Tuesday’s win.
“When we win, you can just notice a difference when we come out and play hard and the intensity is key,” Brady Webster said.
“Coming out at a fast pace,” Geist added.
The road ahead
Lake Holcombe has now won eight of its last nine games overall and returns to action at home on Thursday against Unity then faces a stretch of five out of six games on the road beginning on Monday at Gilman and Tuesday, Jan. 16 at New Auburn. Following that game the Chieftains start their second turn through the conference schedule when they play at Cornell on Jan. 25.
The Chieftains head toward the midpoint in the league season with a near two-game lead on Bruce and a two-and-a-half game advantage over Cornell and New Auburn, but coach Webster said the team isn’t looking past anyone.
“Every game in this conference is going to be a big game,” coach Webster said. “This (game) is the means to an end. We’ve got to go get ready. We’ve got a big game with Unity who has a high-powered ball club so it’ll be great to play them.”