Poised Eskymos fend off tough Braves

ESCANABA – Tyler Skufca knows his role with the No. 5-ranked Escanaba Eskymos.

“I just try to come in and do my job, and that’s to shoot three’s,” he said. “When I do that I feel good about myself and helping my team.”

Skufca, who only gets snippets of playing time, made it count Friday night against Gladstone, helping the Eskymos to a 58-52 victory over their arch-rival.

On a night where leading scorer Brandon Robinette struggled with one field goal, it was performances like Skufca’s five points and Jordan Ogren’s eight that gave the Eskymos a boost when they needed it.

“Tyler Skufca came in and I need guys coming off the bench that make a big contribution,” said Eskymos head coach Tracy Hudson. “I told Tyler afterwards, ‘I know you don’t get a lot of minutes, but you made a big difference in the game,'”

Gladstone never led in this contest, but fought valiantly from start to finish and got some monster performances from Jared Hunter and Tyler Wells.

They each had 17 points, but most impressively, Wells drew the assignment of guarding Robinette and practically neutralized him man-on man plus help.

Robinette, got into some foul trouble early and had just three points going into the fourth quarter. A fact that surprised Gladstone head coach Dale Hongisto.

“Wow, really? Was that what he had?” Hongisto said, reacting to the information. “That’s excellent. That’s a credit to Tyler Wells and some of our help defense.”

Robinette finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Wells and Hunter were at their best late in the fourth quarter. The Braves trailed 43-31 entering the final frame and the pair went a combined 9-for-10 at the free throw line. Wells had a couple nice sequences where he hit a triple and followed it up with a steal and layup. he had two three-pointers in the fourth and scored the Braves’ final six points of the game, helping them close the gap to 50-46 with 1:26 remaining.

“Tyler Wells is a special player,” said Hongisto. “17 points, and he’s the main guy guarding Robinette. The part I feel about it I ask him every night to guard the opposing team’s top player and still bring what he does offensively. He’s a special player, a good kid, and he had a great performance tonight.”

Wells’ last points came on a driving layup with half a minute left, to again close the gap to four points, but undaunted, Escanaba’s Ben Kleiman hit an even bigger layup at the other end, and that sealed the deal.

Skufca’s big contribution came in the third quarter. With the Eskymos leading by seven, but having gone stagnant for a stretch, Skufca came off the bench and immediately hit a long three pointer. Seconds later, after an Escanaba steal, Skufca turned right around for an easy layup. Five points in mere seconds.

“We were kind of struggling on offense and I came in and hit the shot,” Skufca said. “After my layup, the crowd got fired up and that kind of carried us to the end.”

The Eskymos capitalized on a lot of loose ball opportunities throughout the game and fought hard for some of their points. Leading the way physically was Ben Kleiman, who led Escanaba with 19 points. Teammate Sam Molnar scored 10.

“Ben has been our hot hand lately. We didn’t give him much of a break in the first half and I told him he was going to have to suck it up because we got in some foul trouble,” said Hudson. “Skufca usually backs him up, but Ben was playing so well, I had to keep him out there. He brought some real toughness around the basket and was in there scrapping a lot when the ball was loose.”

Hongisto said prior to Friday night’s game that “Win, lose or draw we have to compete because we can’t have them with a whole boatload of confidence when the district tournament comes.” and in large part, Gladstone showed that they’ll be a force to be reckoned with on March 5.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we did,” Hongisto said. “It never feels good to lose, especially to Escanaba, but I think we put a lot of people on notice that in 12 days, we’re going to be a tough out.

“I’ll sit down with the coaches and try to figure out the best way to play against these guys. We played 32 minutes of straight man tonight and we showed that we can guard them.”

Escanaba won the JV game 59-48 with Danny Van Effen leading the Eskymos with 15 points. Escanaba also won the freshman game in a 41-39 thriller. CJ Barron made a steal in the final seconds and hit the winning shot at the buzzer. He led the Eskymos along with teammate Gavin Peacocks with 16 points apiece as Esky ended its season at 16-3.

Escanaba (15-4) wraps up the regular season Thursday at Calumet. Gladstone (7-11) will do the same Tuesday as the Braves host Manistique.