By Nate Thompson

JENISON – Muskegon’s Willie Shanks plans to play college football, which was obviously why football coaches from Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University were in the bleachers at Jenison on Tuesday.

They want to make Shanks, an All-State cornerback, part of their recruiting class on National Signing Day.

Shanks obviously impressed them with a superb display of athleticism, albeit it on the basketball court.

Shanks, a 6-foot-1 wing, scored a career-high 31 points and snagged nine rebounds to lead the Big Reds to a hard-fought 71-63 victory over Jenison in a key O-K Black Conference game.

Muskegon high-scorer Willie Shanks Jr. goes up for a shot near the baseline. Photo/Jason Goorman

Muskegon sealed the victory by sinking 11 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter.

The crucial road victory extends Muskegon’s win streak in the O-K Black to 49 in a row. The Big Reds improved to 7-3 overall and 5-0 in league action, while the Wildcats fell to 8-4 and 3-2 in the conference standings.

Shanks was the key playmaker down the stretch, making all six of his attempts from the foul line in the closing minute to help the Big Reds pull away.

He routinely hurt the Wildcats off the dribble throughout the game, hitting 11-of-17 from the field.

“That wasn’t really my mindset (to attack the rim),” Shanks said. “Coach just says that if you got the hot hand, let’s go to the hot hand. And I was feeling good tonight. Going against (Jenison’s) Jacob (Boonyasith), he’s a Division 1 athlete and they have a really good team. So we had to put a chip on our shoulder and come out and play ball.”

Muskegon Coach Keith Guy said he told his team that Boonyasith was going to get his points, but the key was to limit the rest of the Wildcats. Boonyasith, a 6-3 senior, had 23 points, a shade under his season average.

“We didn’t want to let their others beat us, and I thought we did a decent job of that,” Guy said. “We had a couple blown assignments, but I thought we locked down in the fourth.”

The contest was a nail-biter throughout. The Big Reds had a 14-11 edge after one quarter, but the lead changed hands 11 times throughout the second and third quarters.

The game was tied 28-28 at the half, and Muskegon took a 46-45 lead into the fourth.

Jenison grabbed a 59-58 lead with under three minutes to play on a corner three-pointer by Kyle Nott, and regained a one-point advantage on a pair of free throws from Boonyasith a minute later.

Jenison could have extended its advantage on a controversial foul call with 1:45 left. The officials initially called an over-the-back foul on the Wildcats’ Ray Russo, but after discussing it, the call was overturned and the Big Reds’ DeAndre Carter Jr. was issued the foul.

But Russo missed both free throws, and seconds later Muskegon sophomore Vern Nash Jr. connected on a huge corner triple to give Muskegon a 63-61 advantage. Nash finished with 14 points, including a 4-for-4 effort from beyond the three-point line.

Nash’s triple gave the Big Reds a lead they would not relinquish. They kept Boonyasith out of the lane and forced the Wildcats into contested jumpers in the closing seconds.

And the Big Reds’ free throw shooting was on point. They made 18 of 22 in the game, and were nearly perfect from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter.

That’s the result of a lot of practice, according to Shanks.

“We shoot 25 free throws every day before practice,” Shanks said. “Then at the end of practice, we each shoot two and if we miss seven as a team, we’re running.”

Shanks said the Big Reds have bonded closer as a team since a disappointing loss to Grand Haven in mid-December. He said the goal to keep their conference winning streak alive motivates them daily in practice.

“This was our 49th straight, so we know we can’t be the class to mess it up,” he said. “Those guys in 2014, 15, 16, they didn’t lose. So we should we?”