By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal

Oakridge coach Tracy Ruel was breathing a sigh of relief after Thursday night’s 53-50 basketball victory over the Shelby Tigers.

Ruel watched in horror as his big man, Mike Eacker, had to sit out more than 10 minutes of the second half due to foul trouble and then see his team miss 13 of 20 free throws.

And win.

But the victory wasn’t sealed until Shelby’s 3-point shot missed the mark with 2 seconds remaining.

“You can’t shoot 7-for-20 from the free-throw line and win many games,” Ruel said. “They stepped up and made the ones down at the end, when we needed them. Going into districts and our last three games, we’ve got to do a better job shooting free throws.”

And having Eacker sitting on the bench for so long also limited his scoring. He finished with eight points. That just meant others had to pick up the scoring slack. That included junior guard Austin Wright, who came off the bench and scored 14 points, including seven in the fourth quarter when the Eagles were trying to preserve their narrow lead.

“We’ve been saying it all along, I need 3, 4 and 5 (scorers) to step up,” Ruel said. “Tonight, it was Austin Wright who had a huge game and Joey Warren.”

Early on, it was Shelby that was stepping up and making plays. The visitors raced out to an early 15-6 lead in the first quarter and led 19-13 after one quarter. In that quarter, Shelby made two 3-pointers, three free throws and five layups to account for their points. The extra pass inside helped Andrew Beckman scored five of his 15 points in the first eight minutes. Jason Beckman hit both 3s and had eight first-quarter points. He finished with 12 points.

But in the second quarter, the Eagles roared back to take a one-point lead and the momentum into the locker room. And that came despite the fact Eacker picked up his second foul early in the second quarter and had to sit.

“In that second quarter, we just didn’t score,” Shelby coach Rick Zoulek said. “We just didn’t go inside and we went cold too. I think the kids thought we can relax a little because Eacker is out of there, so we were taking some shots that I didn’t think were bad shots, but we’ve got to go inside. You’ve got an advantage with Eacker out of there.”

The third quarter also was even and the teams entered the pivotal fourth quarter deadlocked at 38-all.

Wright jump started the Eagles in the fourth quarter with a three-point play in the first minute and a minute later, canned a 3-pointer. Francis Decker also hit a 3 during a stretch in which the Eagles built their lead to 47-41.

Back came Shelby with Andrew Beckman converting a three-point play and Spencer Peters hitting a 15-foot jumper. Also in the final minutes, sophomore Michael James scored off an offensive rebound then banked in a six-footer with 45 seconds left. Andrew Beckman led Shelby with 15 points and James finished with 11.

But in the end, it was the Eagles (13-4) hitting their free throws to keep the Tigers at bay.

Eacker hit a pair from the charity stripe and Wright made one of two with 19 seconds left and Eacker came back with 7 seconds left and made one more.

Shelby then set a possible game-tying shot by Jason Beckman.

“It  was a little far out from where we wanted to, he had a chance to take one more dribble,” Zoulek said. “It shouldn’t have come down to that. I didn’t think we played very well offensively, more than defensively. They are a pretty good team and when they hit them long 3s, what are you going to do? If they hit a 25-footer, more power to them. I’m not going out there 25 feet to chase them around there.”

The victory gives the Eagles a sweep of the two regular-season games against the Tigers.