No. 1 Jets clutch in fourth, knock off Trojans

POWERS – Don’t ever count these Jets out. Outplayed for much of the first half and a key player banged up, North Central dug deep Friday night and pulled out a 63-50 Skyline Conference victory over Forest Park.

It was a matchup of undefeated teams when the top-ranked Jets hosted No. 3 Forest Park, and it certainly lived up to its billing.

The Trojans (10-1, 7-1 Skyline) gave the Jets (12-0, 8-0 Skyline) their best shot and stormed out to a 12-2 lead to start the game. They forced turnovers, they hit big shots but most striking was the way they did it. The Trojans were undaunted by the powerhouse Jets and matched up well physically and athletically.

“I felt man-to-man we did match up well,” said Trojans head coach Chris Nocerini. “We had a slight disadvantage at times, but my kids sucked it up. This was our midterm exam and our team passed it. I’m very happy.”

In fact Forest Park led the entire first half and as the Jets seemed to be stuck in first gear. Their shooting was off and their offense was tentative against a swarming Trojans defense that seemed to be everywhere at once.

“That’s what our team does, we play defense,” said Nocerini. “We know at times we’ll struggle on the offensive end, but I feel we can clean that up. I’m very happy with the effort.”

It didn’t help matters when Rob Granquist appeared to roll his ankle near the start of the game. He sat out the first half as the Jets struggled.

But North Central did close the gap slightly toward the end of the second quarter as Travis Vincent rose his game and hit five consecutive points. Raymond Tomasik paced the Trojans in the first half, scoring eight of Forest Park’s first 10 points to the delight of the loud and large Trojans fanbase that made the trip. The Jets student section was loud and roaring as well, making for a fitting atmosphere.

“I love our fans and it really makes the guys feel very happy when they walked out of the locker room and saw that crew here,” said Nocerini.

Forest Park led 28-24 going into the second half, but if there was any doubt that two of the top teams in the Upper Peninsula were on the floor, it was the 40-40 score going into the fourth quarter.

Rob Granquist came back into the game midway through the third quarter, and his two free throws at the end of the third tied the game up. Earlier in the frame, Vincent and Jason Whitens kicked things off with back to back buckets, Whitens dazzling with his dribble drive and reverse layups.

Forest Park’s freshman counterpart Daniel Nocerini put on quite a show as well, scoring a game-high 20 points.

“I give a lot of credit to Crystal Falls. They’re a great team, very athletic, very well coached. They didn’t back down,” said Mercier. “The Nocerini boy is a great player. We knew him coming in, but he really stepped up for them.”

Facing tough shots all night, Nocerini was poised under pressure.

“This is a very difficult place to win at and our kids battled hard,” said coach Nocerini. “They had the confidence to knock those shots down, and they did.”

To start the fourth, Rob Granquist hit a couple free throws before completing a three-point play, giving North Central a 44-40 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It was only the Jets second lead of the game, having also led 37-36 briefly in the third.

“We were worried when Rob went down with an ankle injury in the first minute. He was kind of banged up,” said Jets head coach Adam Mercier. “He stepped up big at crunch time in the fourth quarter and Vincent came up with big offensive rebounds as well and buckets. Those guys have the capability to step up at the right time. Defensively, our guys did a nice job taking away some of their looks.”

It was like flipping a switch as the Jets ramped it up a notch from the start of the fourth. They embarked on a 16-4 run that put the game way. Granquist’s seven straight points were followed by two free throws and a bucket from Trevor Ekberg, followed by a missed three point shot and a leaping putback from Vincent.

“I thought our tempo was way off (to start the game). They had the upper hand in tempo and for some reason we were playing slow and that’s not the way we want to play,” said Mercier. “We needed to get it going a little bit, we were stagnant, it took us a while to adjust. I give a lot of credit to Crystal Falls, they’re a great team.

“I liked how our kids responded in the second half though. It was a great defensive effort.”

The big 23-point quarter came at the right time for the Jets who came away with the win and remained one of two undefeated teams left in Class D in the Upper Peninsula.

Nocerini said the Jets eventually just wore the Trojans down.

“The kids played hard. I thought we ran out of gas at the end and got into some foul trouble. We had a few breakdowns here and there, and North Central did a great job, Adam did a great job. I have to give credit where it’s due, but I’m confident we’ll be rolling toward the end of February.”

North Central, which travels to Republic Tuesday, won the jayvee matchup 69-59 in overtime.