MARINETTE — Panicking isn’t an option for the senior-laden Marinette boys basketball team.

Trailing most of the second half, the Marines made a late comeback led by Jake Poetzl, en route to a 61-58 victory over Little Chute on Friday. It was the North Eastern Conference opener for Marinette (3-1) and the victory came over a team expected to be in the running for the conference title.

“This is a very good conference with many talented teams and they’re one of them,” Marinette coach Matt Joost said. “It’s an open conference for anyone so to win the first one was huge for us.”

With just under 13 minutes remaining in the contest, the Marines trailed 42-31 after Mustangs guard Noah Mueller buried his third 3-pointer of the game. Mueller also eclipsed 1,000 career points on the basket, providing Little Chute with momentum.

The Marines slowly started their comeback started with a 3-pointer from Rylie Nelson and fastbreak baskets by Poetzl and Matt Wagner.

After Little Chute extended its lead back to nine at 49-40 with just under 10 minutes remaining, Wagner sank a 3-pointer and scored on a tough inside basket to cut the deficit to four. A defensive stop by the Marines resulted in Wagner — a quarterback during football season — firing a deep pass to Poetzl, who converted the basket to trim the Mustangs lead to 49-47 with eight minutes to go.

Exchanging baskets over the next six minutes and with the score tied 55-55, Poetzl helped Marinette take the lead after drawing a foul and sinking both shots free throws, making it a 57-55 game with just under two minutes to play.

The Mustangs followed by turning the ball over, which Marinette then played keep-away by running the clock down and drawing multiple fouls before Tyler Fayta got to the line in the bonus with a minute to go.

A missed free throw by Fayta didn’t hurt the Marines as Little Chute, which committed a turnover, leading to Wagner getting fouled and sinking two from the line, extending the lead to four.

Another Mustangs turnover led to a free throw by Fayta, extending the lead to five and after a 3-pointer from Justin Job trimmed the Marines’ lead to 60-58. Wagner sank one of two from the line with 2.1 seconds remaining before a last-second heave by Mueller hit the left side of the rim as time expired. 

“We’ve put a major emphasis on turnovers, both for ourselves and our opponents,” Joost said. “We only turned the ball over 13 times tonight while causing over 20 for them. This is a veteran group and they showed it tonight.”

Little Chute came out of the gates on fire from downtown as Job sank four 3-pointers during the first five minutes of the game to help the Mustangs jump out to a 12-4 lead.

Poetzl willed his team back by controlling the paint to either finish tough baskets or draw Mustang fouls. He led Marinette with 17 first-half points and helped the Marines get into the bonus with nearly 10 minutes left in the half.

“I saw some openings inside and just wanted to be aggressive,” Poetzl said. “I had a bad day during the day, so I wanted to take it out on them, especially in the first half.”

Poetzl scored a game-high 30 points, showing the attributes that made him the all-time leading scorer in school history.

“This is the best I’ve seen Jake play this year,” Joost said. “We just kept feeding him the ball and he was finishing. He didn’t expect to get any calls and played tough. This was mentally his best game by far.”

Wagner added 14 points for the Marines, despite battling through foul trouble in the first half and not scoring his first basket until the opening minute of the second half. Nelson added nine and providing quality minutes off the bench.

“Rylie had another solid game for us and he’s been our spark plug,” Joost said. “Tyler (Fayta) was tasked with guarding Noah (Mueller) and I thought he held him in check and did a great job defensively.”

Free throws were the difference, with Marinette sinking 17 of 25 attempts while Little Chute had just six attempts and made three of them.

“For us to be 3-1 after the tough schedule we had to start with, I’m very pleased,” said Joost. “Once we got on a roll tonight, this group gained a ton of confidence and I expect that going forward.”

Marinette plays its next game at Wrightstown on Thursday.