MONTAGUE — Shelby can do a lot of things on the basketball court, but it can’t grow any taller or wider. Sometimes that’s too big an obstacle to overcome.
It certainly was Thursday, as the Tigers kept coming back for more against Montague but couldn’t stop the bigger Wildcats from getting some key offensive rebounds in a 57-45 defeat.
After falling behind in the second quarter, Shelby (4-2, 3-1 West Michigan Conference) repeatedly battled back and was within two points late in the third, but the Wildcats made several second-chance baskets in a row and were able to keep the first-place boys in purple at bay the rest of the game.
“They just turned it up and started pushing us around and forcing us inside and getting some key offensive rebounds,” Shelby coach Rick Zoulek said. “We’re not going to block shots from a 6-4, 6-5 or 6-7 kid, so if they get them, it’s probably going in.”
Zoulek said the game was a very physical one, and the officials mostly let the two teams bang bodies in the post. That played to Montague’s advantage, with a front line of much taller and bigger players like Isaiah Atchison, who blocked six Shelby shots and altered several others, and Rodney Brassfield, a burly football star who scored 10 points on six offensive rebounds.
Shelby showed some mental toughness by refusing to let Montague pull away. Joseph Hayes, who was held to two first-half points, poured in 14 in the second half to keep his team in the game, and Carson Claeys hit three of his four three-pointers after halftime as well to total 12 points.
The mental toughness was terrific, but Zoulek said the team must also be more physically tough when facing a bigger squad like Montague.
“If officials let teams play a little more physical, and I’m not saying there were bad calls or anything, but that was the type of game (it was),” Zoulek said. “We can’t compete in that type of game very well right now. Our kids have to get lower and stronger. There were two or three times that I felt their kids cleared us out on a free throw. If you don’t get that call, you have a 6-4, 220 guy going against a 6-1, 150 guy...There’s not much we can do about that. He’s stronger. I kept harping on it the whole game, that we have to play stronger.”
Hayes showed off some strong play when he scored a three-point play with 10 seconds to go in the third quarter, pulling the Tigers within 30-28. That was as close as Shelby got; Montague scored before the buzzer on an offensive rebound, one of several such plays in the next few minutes of action.
Bishop Lee, the Tigers’ top post threat, did his best but was held to only eight points, one in the first half, on 2-of-7 shooting. He did manage nine rebounds, six on the offensive glass.
Hayes and Lee had combined for 51 points in Shelby’s previous game, a win over White Cloud, and Montague’s defense clearly focused on limiting the two of them.
“Joe is not a real physical guy,” Zoulek said of the wiry senior guard. “He’s a basketball player and can play well in the open floor, but when he has to go against bigger, stronger kids, it’s pretty tough for him. Bishop is an undersized post player, a 6-1 post player. He’ll battle in there and get his share of rebounds, but it’s tough to play against those (taller) guys.”
The loss was Shelby’s first in what has already shown to be a very competitive WMC. Talk all preseason throughout the league was that the conference had a lot of parity, and in that regard it’s exceeded the hype.
“There’s no question,” Zoulek said of how deep the conference is. “You can see it. In my 37 years, this is probably from top to bottom the most equitable I’ve seen it.”
SHELBY (45) Claeys 4 0-0 12, Hayes 5 5-9 16, Garcia 3 1-2 7, Dickman 1 0-0 2, Lee 2 4-8 8. Totals 15 10-19 45.
MONTAGUE (57) O. Raeth 3 0-0 7, Nichols 3 3-4 10, Olson 1 0-0 2, Stine 3 6-8 13, Atchison 2 4-6 8, Blankstrom 3 0-0 7, Brassfield 5 0-1 10. Totals 20 13-19 57.
Shelby.........9 6 13 17 — 45
Montague....6 16 10 25 — 57
Three-point goals — Shelby 5 (Claeys 4, Hayes), Montague 4 (O. Raeth, Nichols, Stine, Blankstrom). Total fouls — Shelby 17, Montague 17. Fouled out — Hayes. JV score — Shelby 38, Montague 24.