HOWELL — After spending 10 of their previous 11 games playing teams they knew almost by heart, the Howell boys basketball team was glad to play someone else on Thursday.
And the Highlanders (12-5) made the most of the opportunity, clamping down on Lakeland in the first half en route to a 50-42 victory at Howell High School.
Howell advanced to the semifinals of the Lakes Conference tournament. The Highlanders will play at Walled Lake Central on Monday.
“More than the tournament part of it, we beat a really good team,” Howell coach Nick Simon said. “I think that’s really important.”
The Highlanders, at a decided size disadvantage, used a smart defense to confuse and confound the Eagles (11-6) from the start.
“We didn’t make layups in the beginning,” Lakeland coach Bob Brugger said, “and that led to missed free throws and lost confidence. Howell dictated the entire game. They played harder than us. They were more physical. They controlled the game, defensively, when we had the ball. All the credit to them. We just didn’t match their intensity in any phase of the game.”
The Highlanders held the Eagles in check for most of the game, withstood a Lakeland run in the third which got them to within a point, 32-31, then pulled away at the end.
“When we’re focused and engaged, we’re pretty good,” Simon said. “Their No. 3 (Travis Seka, who had a game-high 19 points) was fantastic.”
But the Highlanders also shut down the rest of the Lakeland offense. Sophomore Kyle Soderberg hit nine points on three 3-pointers, but no other Eagle had more than five.
Among them was Martin Sinishtaj, who had trouble getting shots to fall early and had trouble getting the ball after that due to tenacious defense.
“Thomas Lassitter did a fantastic job making him post up at 15 feet instead of six or seven,” Simon said. “That was all the difference. Even though (Lassitter) was giving up 6-7 inches (in height), when you make a guy post up 15 feet from the hoop, he’s going to have difficulty making baskets.”
It was Senior Night for the Highlanders, and while many coaches fret about the ceremonies and loss of mental focus that sometimes occur, Nate Allen, one of those seniors, sparked the Highlanders on defense while adding nine points and seven rebounds.
“The whole team communicated,” he said. “We all talked, and the help side (on defense) was always there. We can always do better with communication, but overall, it was a great team defense.”
The Highlanders led 26-16 at the half, with help from ice-cold Lakeland shooting at the free-throw line. The Eagles hit on just three of 13 attempts.
Lakeland rallied in the third, getting to within a point going into the fourth, but the Highlanders got back on track and got key stops on defense.
“Everyone has a run,” Allen said. “We just had to answer back.”
Jon Shields led the Highlanders with 14 points, while Derek Kerner, held scoreless in the first half, had eight in the second for Howell.
Afterward, Allen savored a victory on Senior Night.
“It’s so fun,” he said. “Senior Night is one of the best nights you can have. Everyone is cheering each other on. There’s always that vibe of playing together. I’m excited to see how we finish the tournament. It should help us for districts and later on.”