HOWELL — The first round went to the Howell girls basketball team on Tuesday night, with a hard-fought 35-32 win over Hartland at Howell High School.
But, as things go in the KLAA West, it was the first of at least three games between the teams this season, including a first-round meeting in district play next month, and possibly a fourth game during the Lakes Conference tournament.
“I told our kids it’s like a tennis match,” Hartland coach Don Palmer said. “This was advantage Howell. They didn’t win anything tonight, but they’re in a better position than we are. They did what they had to do. They won on their home court. Now we have to make sure, when we come back, that game means something. Easier said than done. And Brighton will be a factor in this, too.”
The X factor was Erin Honkala, who led all scorers with 16 points and had a crucial putback in the fourth quarter off a missed free throw that cut Hartland’s lead to one, 30-29, and ignited an 8-2 spurt that sealed the win for Howell.
The Highlanders (9-1 overall, 4-0 KLAA West) are in sole possession of first going into Fridya’s game at Brighton.
The Highlanders led most of the first half, taking a 15-6 lead early in the second quarter before the Eagles scored the last six points of the first half and gained control in the third quarter.
“They might have had the first half, but the third quarter was ours, and the fourth seem to be theirs at the end,” Palmer said. “They had the swing at the right time, and the momentum. But there’s a lot to guard out there, and our kids did OK, but I thought the guards for Howell played exceptionally well. You feel that Erin’s going to get hers, and we fouled two kids out trying to hold her down.”
Emily Messner, who had the thankless task of going up against Honkala, picked up two fouls early in the first quarter and had to go to the bench.
Her absence allowed the Highlanders to focus on shutting down Hartland’s perimeter attack, and it was effective. Howell held Hartland to two points in the first quarter,
She returned in the second quarter and hit a couple of baskets inside before picking up a third foul.
By then, the Eagles had started to stir offensively and clawed their way back into the game with the late run.
“It was just working hard,” Hartland’s Michelle Moraitis said. “We worked hard on our defense and the offense came with it.”
“I thought their defense was good, and maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves,” Palmer said. “We’ve had a lot of close games and we put some emphasis on this game. I think the other thing we were avoiding was we didn’t want to get the shot block. I told the kids no one’s ever died from a blocked shot, but a lot of kids have gotten in foul trouble trying to block them. But that’s easy to say and hard to do.”
In the second half, the Eagles kept going, getting better looks and, unlike the first half, hitting their shots.
“We played with conviction,” Hartland’s Lexey Tobel said. “The older players on the team took over the ball, our freshman (Abby Ratkowiak) played great. She wasn’t scared. She came on strong in the second half.”
The Highlanders, meanwhile, were struggling at the free-throw line, going 2-for-7 in the quarter.
The Eagles led after three quarters, 25-23, and led 30-27 before Honkala’s play on the putback.
“That catapulted us in energy,” Howell coach Tim Olszewski said. “The girls worked so hard and made great defensive stops at the end.”
And, when it counted, Rita Pecuch, who had missed her first four free throws, hit a pair down the stretch to give Howell a 35-30 lead.
“You just have to forget about the ones before and focus on what matters now,” she said.
Tobel and Greyson Cockerham had nine points apiece for Hartland (8-2, 3-1), which fell into a second-place tie with Brighton in the West.
“We know we can come back and play with our all again,” Tobel said. “It’s fun playing games like this. That’s why athletes play their sports.”