Hiltunen has the hot hand as Eskymos roll

GLADSTONE – For the Escanaba Eskymos Friday night, it was only a matter of time.

The Eskymos weathered an early storm, before an old nemesis delivered the knockout punch. Much like last year in this same gym, Jamie Hiltunen rained down three’s in succession and brought his team back, as Escanaba rolled 67-44 in a Great Northern Conference game between the two rivals.

The Gladstone Braves clearly outworked Escanaba in the first 10 minutes of the game, coming out with high intensity and a very physical presence. The Eskymos were thrown off their game, couldn’t get good looks at the net and were sluggish defensively.

Midway through the second quarter, the Braves held a 20-12 lead.

“We were up 20-12 and I said, wow that’s a nice start, which we wanted of course,” said Braves head coach Dale Hongisto. “But I’m disappointed. I watched (Escanaba) play once and they shoot 25 three-pointers a game. We’ve worked on that for two straight days and we let them get away. That’s unacceptable.”

Escanaba inevitably snapped out of their funk and things began to click. The Eskymos launched a 17-0 run to storm ahead and never relinquished their lead.

Getting things going was Brandon Robinette on a putback after a missed free throw. Then Hiltunen, whom the Braves surely remember from last season, decided that if they were going to shut everyone else down, he might as well let loose, and he did, to the tune of three triples in a span of under two minutes.

“We just started hitting our shots, started moving the ball and finding the open guy better,” Hiltunen said of the rally. “We knew at home (Gladstone) was going to come out with a lot of energy. We just had to punch back once it died down.”

Hongisto couldn’t understand how the Eskymos’ senior guard was left open.

“Jamie hurt them last year from the same spot on the court,” he said. “We let him get away and there’s no excuse for it.”

Visibly feeling the moment and calling for the ball, Hiltunen was unstoppable for a brief flash, and that was all Escanaba needed to wake up.

“I’m in the zone lately,” Hiltunen admitted. “It started against Houghton and hopefully it keeps going. (Gladstone) denied me the ball the whole second half, so that was tough, but you learn from it and keep going.”

Escanaba head coach Tracy Hudson is now used to seeing these types of outbursts from Hiltunen.

“Jamie was focused, and he’s been kind of a nightmare for Gladstone the last couple games. He goes into these mini-zones where he really sees the basket well,” he said. “I was real happy with our guard play and decision making. We only had two turnovers from our three main ball-handlers”

Esky carried a 29-22 lead into the half, that only expanded from there. The Eskymos rotated in 10 deep from their bench and everyone contributed, and Robinette got going as well, when he wasn’t hindered by fouls.

It was a different story in the first half with Tyler Wells on the Esky center like glue.

“I thought Tyler Wells, who is 5-10, did a good job on Brandon,” said Hongisto. “Other kids for Escanaba stepped up, but if you’re going to be a good team, kids need to step up and that’s what Escanaba did.”

Robinette scored a game-high 22 points with 12 rebounds to lead Escanaba and HIltunen totaled 17 points with three assists. Point guard Sam Molnar had four assists and zero turnovers.

“We had some pressure steals in the third quarter and came out and pushed hard,” said Hudson. “Gladstone out-physicaled us in that first quarter though, and we had to dig in and be more physical. We weathered it but they taught us a lesson in the beginning.”

The Braves had no one in double figure scoring, but had good balance throughout their lineup as 10 players showed up in the box score, led by Wells’ nine points and five rebounds.

The Braves however, were only 13-of-40 shooting to Escanaba’s 20-of-47, including 8-for-19 from beyond the arc.

“It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, that’s obvious,” said Hongisto. “Without letting them get away on the three’s, it’s a game. I’m not concerned that we’ll go to Esky and get beat by 20 because if we take care of a few things, we’ll be fine. It’s just going to take a little bit longer than I thought, and maybe my guys thought.”

Escanaba won the junior varsity game 66-29 and Gladstone took the freshman game 37-36.

Escanaba (3-1, 2-0 GNC) plays at West Iron County, Friday while Gladstone (0-3, 0-2 GNC) visits Mid Peninsula Monday night.