EagleHerald/Matt Lehmann
Stephenson’s Tayler Monette works his way past Carney-Nadeau’s Max Baumler to get off his shot during Wednesday’s MHSAA Division 4 District 99 semifinal game in Carney.
EagleHerald/Matt Lehmann

Stephenson’s Tayler Monette works his way past Carney-Nadeau’s Max Baumler to get off his shot during Wednesday’s MHSAA Division 4 District 99 semifinal game in Carney.

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CARNEY — Clutch free throws by Brett LaFord and Brayden Kakuk helped the Carney-Nadeau boys basketball team fend off a late comeback attempt by Stephenson to secure a 56-50 victory over the Eagles in the two team’s MHSAA Divison 4 District 99 semifinal matchup on Wednesday.

Ahead by only two points with 26.0 seconds remaining, LaFord drove to the hoop, initiated contact and converted the ensuing free throws before an offensive foul called on the Eagles sent Kakuk to the line with 17.2 seconds left on the clock, where he sank both shots that gave the Wolves the 56-50 lead that it would hold thanks to one final defensive stand.

Stephenson used a lineup featuring three guards in hopes of pushing the pace against a bigger C-N squad. The Wolves responded by double-teaming any Eagle ballhandler but the Eagles used their speed to knife through C-N’s trapping defense to score 38 of their 50 points from close range. C-N used its physicality to bully its way to the foul line 33 times, converting 24 free throws compared to just 10-of-16 for the Eagles, something that Stephenson head coach Eric Panske believes was key to his team’s loss.

“Fouls definitely didn’t help us tonight,” he said. “We got into foul trouble early, especially with both of our bigs, and that messes with your attitude in terms of how you want to play. I thought we battle and fought through it anyway, but that was really the big difference tonight.”

“We made our shots at the right time,” C-N head coach Paul Polfus said. “We made our free throws down the stretch, got a couple of big stops when we needed to and got enough rebounds to come out on top. I give our kids credit because we didn’t play the best defense tonight. We didn’t cover the gaps very well or keep the ball in front all the well, but we played hard.”

C-N and Stephenson always bring out the best in each other on the court and Wednesday’s game was no exception, with each team trading baskets before a layup from Tayler Monette gave the Eagles the advantage.  LaFord knocked down a 3-pointer to kickstart a series of one-point lead changes until free throws by Beau Koffman gave the Wolves the 12-10 lead.

Coming out of a Stephenson timeout, Bryce Kuehnau drove into the teeth of C-N’s defense for a layup to tie the game before another 3-pointer and a pair of free throws by LaFord gave the Wolves a three point lead. A mid-range jumper from Kuehnau cut the Eagles’s deficit to just one point entering the second quarter.

The two teams once again exchanged buckets until a spinning layup through traffic by Max Baumler and a layup from LaFord made it a 22-18 game. Two quick layups by Kuehnau and Trent Cappaert allowed Stephenson to tie things up, but a flurry of free throws by the Wolves quickly helped push their lead to six. Spencer Coldren tacked on another layup for the Eagles before another pair of LaFord free throws gave C-N the 30-24 advantage at halftime.

“At times, we struggle to make shots and that’s been our undoing all year,” Panske said. “We’ve been right there all year and we were right there again tonight. We had three days to prepare and, for the most part, our kids did exactly what I asked of them and I couldn’t be prouder. Carney is a great basketball team with a hall of fame coach, and we were right there with them on their home court.”

After a triple by LaFord pushed C-N’s lead up to nine to kick off the third quarter, Kuehnau scored four consecutive points for Stephenson but free throws by Michael Flanagan and a trey courtesy of Baumler forced an Eagles’ timeout.

Once play resumed, Jett Starzynski drilled a 3-pointer from the left-hand corner while Kuehnau chipped in a free throw and Trae Larson added a layup to make the score 40-34. Kuehnau scored back-to-back buckets before the Wolves dribbled out the final 40 seconds to take a five-point lead into the fourth quarter.

Stephenson’s offense stayed hot as the final quarter began, with Monette canning a triple while Spencer Coldren tacked on a pair of free throws. Three more Coldren free throws brought the Eagles within one until LaFord was sent to the line, where he promptly swished both free throws to make it a 49-46 game with just over three minutes left to play.

After a scoreless two-minute stretch, Koffman hit a jumper while Coldren sank another free throw as C-N held on to a tenuous four-point lead with 1:21 remaining. A corner 3-point bomb from Starszynski cut the Wolves’ lead to just two, but needing to intentionally foul to get the ball back, Stephenson sent LaFord to the line and watched him can both free throws to give C-N the 54-50 lead. After an offensive foul was called on Cappaert with 17.2 seconds to go, Kakuk stepped up to the foul line and sank both free throws to ice the game and send C-N to the district championship game.

The Wolves will now face off with North Central on Friday for the district crown and Polfus said that there was plenty to work on coming off their victory over the Eagles.

“It’s not the worst thing to have a game like this, because it teaches you what you need to improve on,” he said. “Stephenson tested us much more than we wanted to be tested at this point in the year, so we know we have some things to clean up. We have to take care of the gaps better than we did because North Central will attack the basket. We missed some shots, missed some layups and missed some one-on-one opportunities, so I know our kids will be anxious to get back at it.”

LaFord led the Wolves with 25 points while Baumler added 12 and Koffman and Flanagan chipped in six. Stephenson was paced by Kuehnau’s 17 points, followed by 11 from Coldren while Monette poured in 10.

STEPHENSON (50) — Kuehnau 17, Coldren 11, Monette 10, Starzynski 6, Larson 4, Cappaert 2; FTs: 10-16.

CARNEY-NADEAU (56) — LaFord 25, Baumler 12, Flanagan 6, Koffman 6, Kakuk 5, J. LaFord 2; FTs: 24-32.

Halftime score: Carney-Nadeau 30, Stephenson 24