EagleHerald/Brian Bell The Gladstone Braves celebrate with each other after Andie Balenger's game-winning 3-point shot during Monday's MHSAA Division 2 district opener against Menominee.
EagleHerald/Brian Bell The Gladstone Braves celebrate with each other after Andie Balenger's game-winning 3-point shot during Monday's MHSAA Division 2 district opener against Menominee.

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MENOMINEE — The Menominee girls basketball team held a 12-point lead over the Gladstone Braves with 5:19 remaining in the game and it looked as if the Maroons were ready to move on to the semifinals in the MHSAA Division 2 district tournament.

After Makenzie Wellner split a pair of free throws, Menominee led 45-33 and over the next five minutes, Gladstone slowly but surely clawed its way back into the game. The Braves were able to hold the high-powered Menominee offense scoreless after Wellner’s free throws, force turnovers that led to baskets and after Maddie Ahlgren turned a steal into a fastbreak layup, the Maroons’ lead was cut to 45-43 with just over 1:30 to play.

“I just thought we weren’t as poised as we needed to be offensively in the fourth,” Menominee coach Lucas Chouinard said. “We kind of tried to jam the ball in there too much instead of relying on our cuts and dribble handoffs and we were looking for that home run play. It’s a learning experience for our younger girls and you have to credit Gladstone for converting off those turnovers

Menominee went into a stall offense and got the clock all the way down to 9.1 seconds left when Erin Barrette was fouled and sent to the line for a bonus situation, but she missed the front end and Gladstone got the ball back with one last chance.

Having to go the length of the floor, Ahlgren handled Menominee’s full court pressure and drove down the right side of the lane. As the defense collapsed to stop Ahlgren, it left Andie Balenger open on the wing and Ahlgren delivered a perfect pass with five seconds remaining. A late close out from the Maroons gave Balenger the space she needed, and she released a 3-pointer that hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded to pull off the upset of the year against the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Maroons, 46-45.

“On that last play we just wanted to get the ball into Maddie’s hands and have her create because with just nine seconds left and (Menominee) pressuring us, that’s not really enough time to set something up and run a play, so that’s just seniors stepping up and doing big things when their team needs it,” Gladstone coach Andy Cretens said. “Andie is the toughest competitor in the entire U.P. I have never had to get on her for trying harder. She does so many good things for us, and that shot is something special that those girls will never forget for the rest of their lives.”

The Braves took control early on in the first quarter when Alaina Trudeau and Marnnea LaFave made a 3-pointer to open up the game and give Gladstone a 6-2 advantage. Menominee got back in it and stayed within 2-3 points for the remainder of the quarter until a 3-pointer from Emma Anderson tied it up at 12 to end the first.

Gladstone came out of the gates with a lot of energy and took away a lot of things the Maroons like to do offensively.

It looked as if Menominee was going to run away with the game to open up the second as the Maroons score the first six points to take an 18-12 lead. A basket from Gladstone’s Megan Crow stopped the run, but Menominee scored the next six in a row again to take its biggest lead of the game at that point, 24-14 with 3:24 left in the half.

“We weren’t as sound defensively as we usually are in the first quarter and we picked it up in the second and were able to get a lead and do some good things,” Chouinard said.

Menominee led by 11 after Kennedy Olson finished a drive to the hoop but LaFave answered with a baseline drive just before the halftime buzzer to go into the break trailing 29-20.

The Maroons were sloppy to start the second half and Crow scored the first four points to cut the deficit to 29-24 and hit a pair of free throws after a bucket from Wellner to keep the Maroons’ lead at five (31-26). Once Crow went to the bench for a quick breather, Anderson got free inside for a basket and ended the quarter with another to take a seven-point lead into the fourth, 35-28.

Ahlgren opened up the fourth quarter with a triple but was immediately answered by Wellner on the other end. After trading another basket, Menominee scored five straight to take a 45-33 advantage, leading to the final five minutes and Balenger’s heroics.

“We did a phenomenal job of taking care of the ball and rebounding the ball in the second half,” Cretens said. “Megan Crow was a monster on the boards and Maddie and Andie controlled the game really well. It was everything that we have been working on all year. Our girls were gritty, didn’t give up, fought back and it just all kind of came together today. It was a special thing to be apart of.”

Anderson and Wellner led Menominee with 11 points each and Barrette and Olson added six. Crow had 18 points and 10 rebounds for Gladstone and Balenger added 11.

The Maroons (20-1) dream season has come to an end much earlier than anyone had expected, but on the bright side Menominee returns its core eight players for next season so things are still looking up for Chouinard and Co.

“We have a lot of girls that are very dedicated to the game of basketball,” Chouinard said. “I know over the summer they are going to continue to develop and get better. One thing we have to take away is 20 straight wins is an incredible accomplishment for this team. This loss doesn’t diminish what we did over the regular season. But, at the same time, when playoffs come it can happen to anyone on any given night, and it happened to us tonight.”

Gladstone will now prepare to host Kingsford in the district semifinals on Wednesday. Gladstone split the season series with the Flivvers, but the game they won Kingsford was missing point guard Brooke Kriegl and Cretens is aware of how dangerous she can be on the floor, so the Braves will have to be at their best again.

“Our goal is to limit Brooke Kriegl. She creates like no other and no doubt has the highest basketball IQ in the U.P.,” Cretens said. “We have to do a better job against her this time around because even though she didn’t score much, she still had nine assists. So we have to make sure we do a better job of corralling her in, not letting her get penetration and get some deflections on her passes.”

GLADSTONE (46) — Crow 18, Balenger 11, Ahlgren 8, Trudeau 7, LaFave 2. FTs: 6-9.

MENOMINEE (45) — Anderson 11, Wellner 11, Barrette 6, Olson 6, Hofer 4, Nerat 4, Nolde 3. FTs: 3-5.

Halftime score: Menominee 29, Gladstone 20