By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – It was obvious from the start of Tuesday night’s West Michigan Conference girls clash between the Shelby Tigers and the host Oakridge Eagles that both squads were amped up.

Perhaps they were a little too amped up.

After 4 1/2 minutes of scoreless basketball, the battle between the two league unbeatens finally started to live up to its billing.

Shelby (9-1, 6-0) used its impressive halfcourt game to neutralize the more athletic Eagles, and its savvy passing talents to break the Eagles’ press, coming away with the 48-38 victory in the process.

The Tigers also went 13-for-18 from the charity stripe in the final quarter to grab the win and to take a one-game conference lead over Oakridge (11-1, 5-1) and Mason County Central.

“My thought was ‘I’m glad they’re not scoring,” said Shelby head coach Sarah Wolting, regarding the slow start of both teams, “because neither were we. I had a feeling both teams would be a little on edge, the shots would be a little off, especially to start the game. It’s kind of what I expected.”

“Shelby played a zone and forced us to shoot,” said Oakridge head coach Terry DeJonge. “And we missed shots. We did not execute all night offensively, we did not move the ball to the right people a the right time. That hurt us the entire night.”

After the lengthy drought for both clubs to open the game, Oakridge’s Keyara Wiard, who finished with a game-high 21 points, finally knocked down a shot, from beyond the three-point arc, to score the contest’s first points. A minute later, an Abby Rodriguez 3-pointer finally got Shelby on the board and Oakridge led 7-5 after one.

Oakridge’s vaunted press caused three-consecutive Shelby turnovers midway through the second which Oakridge promptly turned into easy transition baskets, giving the Eagles the 17-15 lead. But the Tigers quickly recovered, slowing down the Oakridge press starting with senior standout center Sydney Czurak, who controlled the Shelby press break from midcourt or by leaking up the sideline for a well-timed outlet pass. Shelby scored the final three points of the half to lead 18-17 at the break.

“Shelby finally got a handle on the press because they are smart,” said DeJonge. “They have just enough ball handlers to make it work, and then some height to even things out. The press, I thought, wore them down, but I think it might of worn us down, too. We missed so many shots that maybe our legs weren’t there.”

“When we tried to rush, that’s when we commit turnovers,” said Wolting. “Oakridge does a very good job of making you try to rush. I called a time out (after the three turnovers) and told them, ‘We’ve got to slow down. We are bigger than they are. We can pass over them.’”

Oakridge looked like it might run away with the game near the end of the third, when Morgan Giddings connected on two-straight three-balls while igniting a steal-and-layup sequence that gave her team the 29-28 lead.

But it would be the last time the Eagles would have the lead.

Shelby looked inside for Czurak over the final eight minutes. Whether it was scoring from the block or the free-throw line, Czurak controlled the paint in the second half, scoring 16 of her team-high 18 points across the final 16 minutes, and going 6-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final quarter. An Oakridge steal and layup by Ashley Weaver – her only points of the contest – cut Shelby’s lead to two, 40-38, but Czurak and Rodriguez iced it from the line.

“Our free throws haven’t been the greatest this year,” said Wolting. “In practice we shoot fine. But we really came through for us from the line tonight when we really needed it.”

“I think Shelby came down here on a mission,” said DeJonge. “Our girls just weren’t as focused as the Shelby girls. We showed too much emotion, we made too many excuses, and I didn’t see the Shelby girls do any of that. They went back to work and played better than us.”

Along with 18 points, Czurak had 16 boards and four assists, while Rodriguez, who finished with 13 points, dished out four assists as well.

Wiard led Oakridge with six steals, seven rebounds and four assists, with Morgan Giddings adding 13 points and six rebounds in the loss.

Shelby 48, Oakridge 38

Chloe Sillman 3 1-2 9, McKenna Inglis 2 0-0 4, Abby Rodriguez 4 4-5 13, Sydney Czurak 5 8-12 18, Tristen Moore 0 4-8 4. Totals 14, 17-27 48.

Keyara Wiard 7 6-7 21, Morgan Giddings 5 0-0 13, Sam McGhan 0 0-2 0, Magan Larabee 1 0-2 2, Ashley Weaver 1 0-3 2. Totals 14 6-14 38.

Shelby 5-13-13-17-48
Oakridge 7-10-12-9-38

3-pointers:  Sillman, Rodriguez, Wiard, Giddings 3. Total fouls: Oakridge 19, Shelby 17. Fouled out: McGhan, Wiard. Technical fouls: none. JV: Oakridge.