By Mitchell Boatman

NORTH MUSKEGON – The West Michigan Conference boys basketball race has been an intense battle all year long.LSJ Logo incert

Going into Thursday’s action, four teams were within two games of the top spot, with Whitehall clinging to a one-game lead.

Two of the top four teams squared off Thursday night when second-place Shelby traveled to North Muskegon, which was tied for third.

Shelby rallied in the second half and emerged victorious, 59-45, to improve to 12-2 overall and 9-2 in the conference.

The Tigers, who play a dangerous Oakridge squad on Tuesday, remain a game out of first with their title hopes alive.

Both coaches were well aware of the impact the game had on the conference race.

“Obviously the kids know we’re a game out,” said Shelby Coach Rick Zoulek. “We know we need to take care of business on our end. If (Whitehall) slips up we want to be there to say we earned a share of that championship.”

North Muskegon coach Chuck Rypstra knows his team can still play a spoiler role. The Norse, now 11-5 overall and 7-4 in the league, will play Whitehall on Tuesday.

“We knew that it was probably going to be a stretch for us to get first place,” Rypstra said. “We’re still going to go out and, as Rick Zoulek said to me at the end, get Whitehall.”

Despite a misleading final score, the game was as tight as the conference race most of the way.

The teams traded baskets for the first 6 ½ minutes and Shelby led 6-5.

North Muskegon made the first run of the game, scoring the next six points. The Tigers responded and scored the last five points of the first quarter, including a Jeffery Beckman three-pointer with five seconds left, to tie the game at 11-11 at the buzzer.

The Norse struck first in the second quarter, netting the first five points. It was a back-and-forth fight the rest of the way.

The biggest play of the half came at the buzzer when North Muskegon’s Riley Fairfield calmly nailed a three-pointer to put his team up 25-19.

Fairfield scored 13 in the first half, while Jeffery Beckman had 11 points for Shelby.

Zoulek was optimistic despite the six-point deficit.

“We were lucky to only be down six,” he said. “We came out a little flat.”

The Tigers came out much sharper in the third quarter. Trailing 28-23, Shelby mounted a major run to end the quarter, outscoring North Muskegon 13-5 over the last six minutes.

Danny Beckman led the way, scoring eight points during the run and 12 in the third quarter, helping Shelby gain a 38-33 lead going into the fourth.

North Muskegon relied on three-point attempts in the fourth quarter, but the shots wouldn’t fall.

“We made a few [threes] in the first half, and in the second half we just didn’t make as many,” Rypstra said.

The Norse started fouling in an attempt to get back in the game, but the Tigers took care of business at the line. Shelby made 13-of-15 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter to ice the victory.

Ten of those free throws were courtesy of Danny Beckman, who scored 22 of his 24 points in the second half. Jeffery Beckman made all five of his free throws throughout the game and finished with 20 points.

Fairfield finished the game with 19 for North Muskegon, while Erick Bleakley netted 10 points.

Zoulek said the comeback was the result of sound decisions on the court.

“We started making good choices, we attacked the basket and got into the bonus,” he said.

Despite the loss, Rypstra was happy with his team’s performance.

“(Shelby) won tonight,” he said. “I’m not so sure we lost, and that’s a step for us.”