By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS — Ludington coach Thad Shank wasn’t expecting his squad to be 13-0 at this point in the season, so it’s fair to say that he expected a loss at one point or another.

Muskegon Heights was more than happy to provide it.

With their starting guards out of action for the majority of the fourth quarter, the Tigers had reserves step up and stifle the Orioles with half-court pressure defense.

That gave Muskegon Heights an exciting 69-62 victory over the Orioles on Friday in a showdown between the two top teams in the Lakes 8 Conference.

The loss was the first of the season for Ludington, which fell to 13-1 overall and 6-1 in the Lakes 8. Muskegon Heights, now 12-4 overall, pulled into a tie for the conference lead with the Orioles.

Muskegon Heights guard JuJuantae’ Trotter digs out of the Ludington defense down low. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Tigers’ win avenged a 60-44 loss to Ludington earlier in the season.

“It was a tournament atmosphere,” said Muskegon Heights Coach Dalrecus Stewart. “They really gave it to us when we went down there (on Jan. 6). They shot the lights out and controlled the tempo. We knew we needed this one. We’ve been working hard at what we knew they were going to present us.”

The game was played at a frantic and frenzied pace. But unlike the Tigers’ trip to Ludington in January, Heights played fast without a flurry of turnovers. They only coughed the ball up eight times while forcing Ludington into 17 turnovers.

Muskegon Heights had to play the majority of the fourth quarter without their starting guards, both of whom average double-figure scoring. Antoine Jones fouled out while Anthony Jones left the game due to cramping in his calf.

Even with the Jones brothers out, the Tigers got enough offense in the clutch. They took a 49-47 lead into the fourth quarter and remained on top the rest of the way, thanks to a tremendous effort from senior forward Joe Moore III, who led all scorers with 21 points, including 17 in the second half.

Joshua Laman gets ready to square up with Muskegon Heights’ Anthony Jones. Photo/Leo Valdez

“Our reserve guys came up big for us tonight – Jujuantae Trotter, Elijah Moore and James Cummings,” Stewart said. “And Joe Moore, he had a huge game. He took the game and put it on his shoulders. They helped us maintain that two-possession lead (throughout the fourth), so we were never really playing with the kind of pressure they wanted to put on us.”

Heights’ most critical scoring spurt came with just under four minutes to play. Ludington had clawed back to within 56-54, but the Tigers responded with a huge corner 3-pointer by forward Kieshon Watson and a jumper by Moore that put them up for good.

Watson had three of the Tigers’ nine 3-pointers and scored 11 points.

The Orioles hung around due to Muskegon Heights’ poor free-throw shooting. The Tigers were 3-of-9 from the line in the last four minutes, but their defensive continued to fluster the Orioles enough to preserve the win.

Joe Moore III finds the Muskegon Heights layup on the fast break. Photo/Leo Valdez

Shank, the Ludington coach, said his team had an unusually cold shooting night.

“We’re a pretty good perimeter shooting team, but tonight we weren’t making them,” he said. “You’ve got to give Muskegon Heights credit for that. Their half-court defense is the best half-court defense we’ve seen.

“We didn’t see some of the openings that we’re used to seeing in our sets, and that’s because of their aggressive nature and their athleticism.”

The teams played a wildly-entertaining first quarter that ended in a 20-20 tie and resembled a track meet at times. The contest continued to go back and forth in the second quarter and Ludington led 37-35 at halftime.

Antoine Jones and the rest of the Tigers were plagued by fouls in the third quarter, leaving Ludington in the bonus with 1:25 left. But Moore’s steal and reverse layup, followed by his corner 3-pointer, helped the Tigers close the quarter strong and take a slim lead at the third buzzer.

Muskegon Heights never relinquished the lead in the fourth quarter.

Center Noah Laman led the Orioles with 17 points while Calvin Hackert and Joshua Laman added nine apiece.