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Starting Strong: Mountaineers overcome Braves for season-opening 51-43 win

Iron Mountain junior Oskar Kangas (0) rises up for a shot over Gladstone’s Drake Johnson (45) and Thomas Tackman (5) on Monday in Mountaineer Gym. The Mountaineers are 1-0 after winning their season-opening contest 51-43. (Terry Raiche photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — At the end of the first quarter of Monday’s boys basketball season opener between visiting Gladstone and Iron Mountain, the teams had combined for 14 points. At halftime, the score was 19-15.

Yes, there may have been some first-game rust and jitters that contributed to the low scoring, but the Braves and the Mountaineers set an early defensive physical tone to the contest, which as much as anything caused the offensive struggles.

The teams did break free a bit in the second half — Gladstone in the third quarter and Iron Mountain in the fourth — as the Mountaineers eventually ended up with a 51-43 victory at Mountaineer Gym.

Junior star Oskar Kangas led the way for the victors with 22 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists. But even the high-scoring 6-6 junior had difficulty sinking shots in the first several minutes.

“I started out kind of slow,” Kangas said. “We knew they were going to be a physical team. Four of their five starters have started since they were sophomores so we knew they were going to be strong.”

His coach agreed.

“They’re athletic kids and they’re tough and their coach (Jake Kiesby) had them well prepared,” IM coach Harvey “Bucky” Johnson said. “I mean, we don’t face that kind of stuff in practice. It’s hard to simulate.

“So yeah, we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from the perimeter but part of that was first game probably, and part of that was Gladstone. So all that stuff combined to make it look like the game it was but we’ll take it.”

The Braves scored six of the game’s first eight points on two driving buckets by senior Kaden Gibbs and an interior hoop by senior Nick Matthews.

IM scored just two points in the first six minutes of the game, a driving layup by point guard Gerald Sampoll Torres. The junior added a pull-up jumper and a layup before Kangas sank a short jumper off an inbounds play to lift the Mountaineers to an 8-6 lead after the first quarter.

Both teams put heavy pressure on the ball and bodies on bodies off the ball from the opening tip.

Kiesby said his team gave the effort he’s looking for.

“I thought the guys played hard and that’s a big thing for us,” said Kiesby, who was Marquette’s junior varsity coach last season. “That’s something that I take pride in, and they take pride in. It’s a learning curve for them. They’ve had to learn a whole new defense and a whole new offense in less than two weeks.”

The second quarter was more of the same.

But Kangas did go on a mini-run with seven consecutive points to give his team a 15-7 edge with four minutes to play before halftime.

Shortly after, the Braves answered with a 5-0 run to pull within two with 2:07 remaining before intermission. Sampoll Torres upped the Mountaineer lead to 19-15 with two free throws 16 seconds later and that was it for the scoring in the opening 16 minutes.

The IM point guard was the steadying force much of the night for his team, finishing with 14 points, including 8 of 10 from the foul line, and five assists.

“He was aggressive and tough tonight,” Johnson said of the three-year starter. “Gerald is a student of the game and he’s a pretty intelligent player on the court.”

Kangas appreciates all of that and more in his team’s floor leader.

“Gerald’s probably one of the best ball handlers I’ve ever played with,” said Kangas, who plays on the AAU circuit in the offseason. “How shifty he is, how crafty he is, and how he works at it. I’m just honored to play with a guy who can handle the ball like that and can make the right plays at the right time.”

The tenacious defenses continued to control the game as neither team scored in the first 3½ minutes of the third quarter. But a 3-pointer by Gladstone senior Elliot Vitito broke the ice at the 4:41 mark.

About two minutes later, the Braves embarked on a 10-2 run that led to a 31-27 lead after three quarters.

Senior Drake Johnson sparked the run with a baseline jumper and a 3-pointer, all the while continuing to provide a strong defensive presence against Kangas.

“Oskar’s a great player and we had to be physical with him,” Kiesby said explaining Johnson’s defensive assignment.

Down five early in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers got a big play from junior reserve forward Evan Copley. In for starting forward Matthew Colavecchi, who was saddled with four fouls, Copley drilled a momentum-changing 3-pointer to pull IM within two.

Kangas then scored in the post 30 seconds later and the game was tied at 33.

“That was a great three by Evan,” Johnson said. “The other thing he did was he got a loose ball rebound on a missed free throw. He did well and I’m proud of him in his first varsity action in a crunch-time game.”

Johnson put his team back up with a jumper from the left baseline but soon after the Mountaineers made their final push.

Copley and Sampoll Torres split a pair of free throws each just before Kangas intercepted a pass near halfcourt and drove for a lay up.

On IM’s next possession with Gladstone sagging in on him in the left block, Kangas hit his brother Reece in the corner for a crucial trey that left the Mountaineers with a 40-35 edge and forcing Kiesby to burn a timeout.

“We knew that I’m going to get doubled down in the post, so just being able to get some good action backside so Reece can get open,” Oskar said. “That’s something we’ve been working on for years. He likes that corner three.”

IM slowly pulled away from there, mainly at the free-throw line. Sampoll Torres sank 4 of 4, while Oskar Kangas and Copley hit two each and Ian Marttila added one.

Other than the totals for Kangas and Sampoll Torres, the Mountaineers received five points from Marttila and Copley, four from Reece Kangas and one from Colavecchi.

“All I can ask from the guys is that they battle for each other, and that the effort will be there every night,” Kiesby said. “We’ll clean up the Xs and Os and we’ll get smoother offensively.”

Color Johnson impressed.

“I think Gladstone is going to win some games,” he said. “Overall it was just a real tough game and the kids persevered.”

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