By STEVE BROWNLEE
For The Daily News
EAST LANSING - A whole season of excellence ended on a sequence of events that lasted less than 10 seconds.
Despite holding the lead for only 5 1/2 minutes all game, the last time with 2:03 left in the third quarter, Negaunee was in perfect position to steal a victory Thursday afternoon in the MHSAA's Class C boys basketball semifinals.
Instead, it was the Miners' opponent, Laingsburg, that made the headiest play of the day as time expired to take a 45-43 victory and advance to face heavily favored Flint Beecher back at Michigan State University's Breslin Center on Saturday afternoon.
Thursday's game was tied 43-43 and Negaunee had the ball with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Miners called timeout 10 seconds later to set up for a final winning shot, or at the very least, go into overtime if they couldn't make it fall.
Senior forward Tanner Uren, the most experienced player on a Negaunee team that hadn't lost since December, took the inbounds pass near halfcourt, standing and waiting for time to run down. He eventually moved left with 16 seconds to go, handing off to Tyler Jandron with 12 seconds left.
Jandron was almost at half-court when he received the handoff, and a Laingsburg defender was right on top of him. A lesser player than Jandron might've had the ball stolen just then.
"I told our guys in that last timeout that we had a foul to give, so we could still be ourselves and be aggressive on defense," Laingsburg 24th-year coach Greg Mitchell said at his team's postgame press conference.
That was because the Wolfpack had only been called for five fouls in the second half, meaning another non-shooting foul wouldn't bring Negaunee to the free-throw line.
While the Wolfpack didn't get the steal, nor Negaunee a foul call, the tight defense seemed to speed up the Miners' usually calm, cool and collected junior point guard, who was named to the Associated Press Class C all-state team just a few days earlier.
Jandron took an opening in the middle and moved toward the free-throw line, stopped, leapt and let go of a 16-foot shot with eight seconds to go.
It was a fateful move.
"They left the middle open," coach Mike O'Donnell said at the Miners postgame press conference about Laingsburg's defense. "We wanted our guys to crash the boards when the shot was taken for a follow-up if we missed."
"That's usually my shot," Jandron said at the conference. "I've been hitting that all year long."
Instead, Jandron's jumper missed the backboard and the rim, falling right into the hands of the Wolfpack's leading scorer and rebounder, senior guard Jake Zielinski.
He alertly moved around the congestion under the basket, but knowing he didn't have time to bring the ball upcourt himself, zipped a pass about half the length of the court to Zach Walker, who saw teammate Shaun McKinney streaking to the bucket from the other side.
McKinney caught the pass and put up the layup, which went through the hoop less than a second before the final buzzer went off. Once the referees reviewed the tape, they concurred and the Wolfpack had scored an improbable victory.
"That was a legendary finish," Mitchell said.
"It's a tough way to lose," O'Donnell said as his team finished the season at 24-2. "I think as a coach, you're in the position you want to be in, having the ball in a tie game with 30 seconds left.
"It was an unfortunate bounce (on the rebound), but his outlet pass was a great basketball play, as was the catch and the kickout."
The Wolfpack had first dibs at making a decisive shot, calling timeout with 52.1 seconds left. Then Zielinski tried to bull his way to the basket, a bad move with three Miners collapsing on him. The shot was blocked and Negaunee got the ball back, setting up the game's decisive final seconds.
Uren led Negaunee scorers with 16 points while making nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. He also made the only two free-throw attempts the Miners were allowed to try all day. Often-overlooked senior Andrew Katona also hauled in nine rebounds, while Lori scored nine points on a trio of 3s.
For Laingsburg (24-2), Zielinski finished with 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, but also six turnovers. He did most of his damage at the free-throw line, sinking 12 of 14 shots there, while the rest of his team was just 1 of 2 at the charity stripe.
(Steve Brownlee is a sports writer for the Marquette Mining Journal)