I t’s the biggest regular-season game of the year. No. 1 Iron Mountain vs. No. 2 Negaunee. With the teams featuring five of the top seven ranked players in the UP, an impressive array of talent will share the court at the same time. It’s two squads with players that have been playing with and against each other since they were kids, and they will face each other tonight at Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium for the first of what is likely three matchups this season. The second game between the two will take place on March 5 in Iron Mountain to close the regular season, and the one that matters most will be a Division 3 regional semifinal at Escanaba on March 16.
As the teams prepare to face off for the first time in 2020, here are four things to watch for in tonight’s showdown. I’ll also give my prediction at the end of the column.
Besides asking how married life is, the most frequent question I’ve been asked this basketball season is about who I think will win between Negaunee and Iron Mountain. It’s understandable, and I’ve flipped back and forth in my mind when thinking about it. But one thing that surprised me a bit is the noticeable growing sentiment there has been for Negaunee to beat Iron Mountain. One of the biggest reasons cited is the Miners cast of returning role players. Drew DuShane and Alex Munson both played pivotal minutes last season during Negaunee’s district title run, while Chas Kumpula has integrated himself to be a positive contributor in the team’s six-man rotation.
Recently, with each team utilizing advanced defensive measures in hopes of limiting the opposition’s top players — Foster Wonders and Marcus Johnson for Iron Mountain, and Jason Waterman, Jakson Sager and Drew Lindberg for Negaunee — it’s been role players who have had the opportunity to make the greatest impact on a game. Last season, it was Jaden Vicenzi converting all five of his 3-point attempts en route to recording 17 points to lead Iron Mountain to a 51-40 win in last year’s regional semifinal.
“It’s hard to get clean looks against Iron Mountain because we know each other so well,” Negaunee coach Dan Waterman said. “So it’s hard to get your big guns on track because everyone’s doing their darndest to prevent that. When those other guys like, Alex, Chas and Drew punch points in for you, it’s big. There are swings in those games and pressure, and when those guys score, it only adds to that.”
Negaunee’s offensive sets primarily run through its talented trio, making DuShane, Munson and Kumpula secondary options. It’s when teams overcompensate for defending Waterman, Sager or Lindberg that the Miners’ role players find themselves with more opportunities on the offensive end.
For DuShane, that means cutting to the basket when the help defense loses him and finishing layups at the rim. Against Gladstone on Thursday, he managed to score 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting in the 78-61 win.
“No one really looks at me to do much, so if guys help off me, I’m able to find an opening,” DuShane said of his offensive mindset. “It’s nice to just cut to the basket and have a layup. It just depends on who we’re playing and how they’re guarding everyone else. Sometimes they’ll face-guard all three of them, and then I’ll have a chance to score more. It just varies each game.”
While DuShane provides most of his scoring near the basket off of cuts, Munson and Kumpula give Negaunee another potential outside threat. Kumpula, who has started to get regular minutes this season in the rotation, knocked down a corner 3 in the win over Gladstone, and last season, Munson converted 3s in critical moments; he made a 3 off the bench in the district semifinal win over Westwood, and converted a 3-pointer and a layup in the loss at Iron Mountain. Munson credits Waterman, Sager, Lindberg and DuShane’s promotion to varsity as sophomores for giving him confidence to be a jump shooter from the perimeter during his time on the JV.
“I think the big thing is confidence. When we had four sophomores up on varsity, it threw some of us into scoring roles,” Munson said. “I go into the game and the nerves aren’t really on my mind. Going into the game, I’m not really nervous with too much. Taking the big shot isn’t something I expect to happen, but if it does, I’ll be prepared for it.”
Given his history of defensive assignments, DuShane has been one of the more versatile defenders in the UP. He has defended guards, the 6-foot-8 Darius Yohe from Ishpeming, and has been a primary defender on the UP’s best player, Foster Wonders. Negaunee does as good a job as any rotating and providing help, but it’s DuShane who’s responsible for limiting Wonders’ ability to attack.
Here’s how the two have matched up in the last two meetings:
“He’s one of the best in the UP for sure,” DuShane said. “I like the challenge, for sure. He’s got a lot of scholarship offers and he’s great. Ultimately, you try not to let the ball get in his hands, but you just have to try to take away his favorite way to go or what kind of move he will give you.”
The overall numbers indicate Negaunee’s ability to make Wonders work and at least limit his ability to take over the game. Now, the key for the Miners will be to contain the 6-foot-5 junior down the stretch in critical moments.
Last season during the regional semifinal, after Negaunee cut Iron Mountain’s lead to five in the final minutes, Wonders responded with a three-point play, midrange turnaround and a drive-and-dish for an assist to help secure his team’s berth in the regional title game.
Wonders and Johnson each displayed their advanced offensive skill sets during last season’s run to the state finals; they hit difficult shot after difficult shot with hands in their faces and multiple defenders running at them. Against Negaunee, they may have to make similar types of shots against the Miners’ pack-it-in defensive look.
Last season, Negaunee let Vicenzi and Charlie Gerhard roam free for the most part, preferring to bring two extra defenders ready to offer help on Wonders or Johnson anytime they drove to the lane. Dan Waterman was prepared to make someone else beat them, saying after the regular-season loss at Iron Mountain, “That should be the game plan for everyone who plays Iron Mountain.” It’s fair to assume the Miners will employ a similar defensive strategy, which could make Johnson and Wonders work from the perimeter.
It’s not a defensive look that will be new to the Mountaineers this season. They’ve already faced their share of variations of the triangle-and-2, and so far, no team has been able to limit the high-scoring duo. They combined for 49 points against Gwinn (28 from Wonders, 21 for Johnson) and then each posted 30-point outings in the 94-58 victory over rival Kingsford.
“Obviously they’re the real deal,” Gwinn coach Jim Finkbeiner said after his team’s 70-20 loss to Iron Mountain. “Marcus hasn’t been on real well with his jump shot lately, but you know that’s not going to last with him because he’s just too good of a player, and Foster is just that solid player all the time … Some people will talk about the cast around them isn’t as strong as the last couple of years because they’ve lost some guys, but they just make everyone around them so much better, too.”
The offensive outburst came a week after a 53-35 win over Westwood where a below-average shooting performance motivated the two to get up 1400 extra shots on the shooting gun. The results have been evident against Kingsford, Gwinn and Manistique, but Negaunee poses the biggest defensive test for Iron Mountain this season.
You could make the argument that Johnson and Wonders for Iron Mountain, and Waterman, Sager and Lindberg for Negaunee will essentially cancel each other out. Both cores are great in their own regard on both sides of the floor, and it’s difficult seeing a scenario where one group severely outplays the other where the game can be determined solely on their production.
We already went over Negaunee’s key role guys, but it’s Iron Mountain’s role players who will likely decide Tuesday’s outcome. Just as Vicenzi made five 3s to beat Negaunee, it could take another individual performance from a Mountaineer to push Iron Mountain past the Miners. The looks will certainly be there; Dan Waterman said as much a year ago, and he was in attendance scouting when Westwood let Iron Mountain’s perimeter players not named Wonders or Johnson roam free and launch uncontested 3s to no avail. As a team, Iron Mountain was just 3 for 30 from 3. Expect Johnson and Wonders to face a wave of defenders as the Miners try to make someone else beat them.
One thing the Mountaineers have going for them is how the team has faced a similar defensive strategy play out over the course of its nine games. But it remains to be seen how its new core around Johnson and Wonders handles the emotionally-charged atmosphere of a packed Lakeview Memorial gym.
“We knew coming into this year we were going to have to develop some other guys,” Marcus said. “We have the other guys to do it; it’s just about building their confidence and being able to play comfortably with each other. We just got to help them out. Foster and I understand, so it’s just getting the other guys to come off the bench to understand that they’re capable of making big plays and making big plays and doing the little things right.”
I rarely do these, but since numerous people have asked, I’ll go ahead and give my prediction. Plus, the familiarity with both programs will prevent anyone from getting overly sensitive about me not picking them to win, so let’s get to it.
Iron Mountain having yet to establish other perimeter players as consistent outside threats gives me pause in picking the Mountaineers to win in what will be a hostile road environment. Heck, the Mountaineers trailed 23-16 at halftime a year ago in the same gym with a more established core. But as it stands now, I cannot bring myself to pick against Foster Wonders and Marcus Johnson. I spent an entire postseason run following them and wondering when they would run into a team that would contain them with more size or greater speed. But it never happened. I witnessed Wonders score 28 and Johnson add 23 in the state semifinals against a Detroit Edison group that was the most athletic team I’ve covered. It took the wildest set of late-game circumstances for me to see them lose a game, and even then, it was at the tail end of a run that saw them make clutch late-game plays on both ends of the court to get to the state finals.
I do think if Negaunee is going to beat Iron Mountain, this may be its best chance — right in the middle of the season at home while the Mountaineers have yet to fully establish all of its parts around Wonders and Johnson.
Iron Mountain 54, Negaunee 49
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