By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — The chant "U.P. power" isn't just a catchy phrase that rocks arenas whenever a school from the Upper Peninsula reaches the final round of an MHSAA tournament.
To the Calumet girls' basketball team, it had real meaning on Saturday.
The Copper Kings huddled in their hotel around a television to watch the 10 a.m. Class D Final in which St. Ignace from just north of the Mackinac Bridge rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit to beat Pittsford in overtime.
One U.P. team brought home a championship and another was inspired to do the same six hours later.
Unranked Calumet won its first MHSAA girls basketball championship, shaking off an early nine-point deficit to beat fifth-ranked Flint Hamady, 57-49, in the Class C Final on Saturday at the Breslin Center.
Hamady had leads of 17-8 and 19-11 during the first two minutes of the second quarter before Calumet got back in the game on the strength of its 3-point shooting. It wasn't as epic a comeback as St. Ignace's record-setting performance, but the game was on the verge of getting away from the Copper Kings against a talented Hamady team that has won three MHSAA titles.
"We were able to sit in our hotel room this morning and enjoy that St. Ignace game," first-year Calumet coach Jeff Twardzik said. "Hat's off to them and congratulations. They helped us mentally, like big-time. When they went down, we thought, 'Oh, no. This is a U.P. team and we're behind them.' When they chipped away at that and came back and showed how gritty they were, they gave us a lot coming into this game. We can do this. We talked to these kids about the ups and downs of a basketball game and we have to stay consistent."
Calumet's victory gave the U.P. two MHSAA girls basketball champions for the first time in the 42-season history of the tournament. It's happened only four times in boys basketball, the last in 1957 when Negaunee and Chassell won titles.
The initial inspiration for this unlikely championship came many years earlier, when six of Calumet's seniors played on a third-grade team coached by Twardzik.
"Ever since third grade, he said this group would win a state championship this year," said senior guard Alexis Rowe, whose 3-point shooting barrage in the second quarter settled down the Copper Kings.
It no doubt made the 500-mile drive home much sweeter for the Copper Kings, who left town at 9 a.m. Monday to play a Quarterfinal game on Tuesday in Petoskey. They practiced in Gaylord on Wednesday before heading to East Lansing that night to play the next day at Michigan State.
"I've been through this experience before in volleyball," said 5-foot-10 Calumet senior Ellen Twardzik, the daughter of the head coach. "You pack for a week before the Quarterfinals and hope to make it to the Finals. We've lost three years in a row in the Quarterfinals. You have to expect the best. You pack all your gear and all your faith."
All-stater Jalisha Terry had 12 of Hamady's first 17 points, as the Hawks got out to a 17-8 lead with 7:04 left in the second quarter. Calumet responded by going 5 for 9 from 3-point range the rest of the quarter, with Rowe hitting three shots from beyond the arc.
Rowe finished with a season-high 22 points, going 4 for 7 on 3-pointers. She came in averaging 1.8 3-pointers a game.
"I know I'm not a 3-point shooter," Rowe said. "I'm more of an inside shooter. When I feel like I'm going, I know I'm going."
An 8-0 run gave Calumet its first lead at 24-23 late in the first half. After four straight Hamady points, a 3-pointer by Rowe with two seconds left in the second quarter created a 27-27 halftime tie.
Hamady's last lead came with 2:50 left in the third quarter when a 3-point play by Terry put the Hawks ahead, 34-33. Calumet led 37-36 going into the fourth quarter, then opened up some breathing room by starting the final period with a 9-0 run. Two free throws by Leah Kiilunen with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter gave Calumet its biggest lead at 46-36.
Hamady was able to score off turnovers to get back in the game, cutting the Copper Kings' advantage to 47-44 on two free throws by Sasha Penn with 1:52 remaining.
Calumet came up with two huge rebounds off of its own missed free throws, the first by Terilynne Budreau after Abby Bjorn went 1 for 2 from the line and the next by Twardzik after Clara Loukus went 1 for 2. Calumet outrebounded Hamady, 42-29.
"It was more of a mentality that I'm going to get that and you're not going to stop me," said Twardzik, who had eight of her 11 rebounds on the offensive glass.
A 3-pointer by Deajah Cofield got Hamady within 55-49 with 53 seconds left, but the Hawks didn't score again.
"It's still been a good season," Hamady coach Keith Smith said. "We would've still loved to have finished on top. The girls have nothing to be ashamed of."
Terry, a junior guard, finished with 26 points.
"I'm taking each loss as a lesson to be learned," she said.
Before this season, Calumet had won only one Regional championship, losing 57-43 to Mount Pleasant in the 1977 Class B Quarterfinals.
"It's just going to breed more success," said coach Twardzik, who led the junior varsity team before this season. "These kids, even before we did this, the enthusiasm they are giving back to our community. In the third through sixth grades in the elementary program, we have 81 young ladies coming out from a small town. It has everything to do with these guys. They give up every Saturday for these young women to come in and learn basketball and have fun along the way. It's going to mean a ton. I hope we can keep this ball rolling."
Calumet finished 24-2, its two losses coming to rival Houghton, which was a Class B Regional finalist.
Hamady finished 26-2.
PHOTOS: (Top) Calumet coach Jeff Twardzik holds the MHSAA championship trophy up to his players Saturday. (Middle) Calumet’s Alexis Rowe works to get past Hamady’s Jalisha Terry.