By Calli Newberry
If the first half belonged to North Branch, the second belonged to Almont, the ultimate winner of Monday night’s District 63 Quarterfinal in Imlay City.
The two familiar conference foes met halfway in Spartan territory for the first round of the boy’s basketball district tournament, where the Raiders left with a 43-28 victory and the opportunity to play another game.
Thanks to their effective zone defense, the Broncos started off with a 7-0 run in the first three minutes, and even as the Raiders marched back, they were able to maintain their edge, leading 9-7 to start the second quarter.
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“Our kids came out ready to play, aggressive, and attacked the basket well,” Broncos head coach Mike Snoblen said.
Almont settled into a full-court press in an effort to slow its opponent, but North Branch remained calm and disciplined with playbook-style passing: inbounds to the sideline to center court. By halftime, the Broncos had extended their lead to six, 22-16.
“We’ve struggled all year with the consistency of effort and focus, and I really expected the first half to go a lot like it did,” Almont head coach John Hall said. “What I didn’t know was how well we would respond in the second half because as a team we haven’t always done that. But tonight, our kids did a really nice job. I was proud of the way that they focused.”
Almont’s Blake Campbell, a senior guard, was the difference in the third quarter. His team scored nine points, of which he had six, and the Broncos mustered one free throw from senior forward Gabriel Baksa. The Raiders had taken a narrow lead, 25-23.
The Broncos weren’t done yet, responding with a 3-pointer from junior guard Aiden Swoish to start the final quarter. A seven-point run by the Raiders followed, halted by two more free throws from Baska, and with four minutes remaining, it was still a four-point game at 32-28. But it was at 28 points that the North Branch offense stalled.
“We did well in the first half against the press, but in the second half we threw the ball away,” Snoblen said. “We made some shots in the first half, which is different for us because we struggled making shots [this season], but in the second half, we only scored six points. That’s not going to get it done no matter who you’re playing.”
Almont went on to score the game’s final 11 points, securing the victory. Campbell led his team with 16 points, including three 3-pointers.
“I’ve put in a lot of work. Last year I didn’t shoot at all, I drove a lot,” Campbell said. “In the offseason, I put in a lot of work on shooting, working on my midrange, and just got the chance to come out here, get some shots up, and did way better than I did last year in shooting.”
Hall said Campbell had missed two days of practice leading up to the game, so it took some time for him to find his momentum, but once he did, he was able to spark some offense for his team, along with senior forward Logan Walton who added 11 points.
“Blake rolled in cold with no practice and wasn’t aware of some of the adjustments we had made, so he was kind of playing blind in the first half,” Hall said. “Once he got his legs under him, we kind of settled down a little bit. I thought Blake and Logan played really, really well in the second half and settled everybody down.”
For the Broncos, Swoish and Baksa each led with nine points. North Branch finishes the season 2-15, while Almont advances with a 12-9 record. The Raiders will take on the district tournament host, Imlay City, Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
“We’re going to have to play a whole game like we did in the second half to be able to win another game,” Hall said. “There’s nothing but good teams left.”