By Fred Inglis

HART – The scores have been very close lately when rivals Hart and Shelby hook up in boys basketball.

The two teams met just 17 days ago, with Hart pulling out a thrilling one-point victory.

So a big crowd showed up on Monday at Hart High School to watch the rivals go at it for the third time this season, in the opening game of a Division 3 district tournament.

The fans weren’t disappointed. The Pirates and Tigers again battled down to the wire, before four free throws in the final minute sealed a 38-35 victory for Hart.

It was the Pirates’ third win over Shelby this season, and sent them to Wednesday’s district semifinals against Holton at 7 p.m. at Hart High School. White Cloud and Hesperia tip off at 5 p.m. in the other semifinal.

Hunter Tubbs squares up to the basket against Shelby’s No. 5 Joseph Hayes. Photo/Leo Valdez

“This rivalry adds a little bit of nerves and we came out a little tense,” said Hart head coach Adam Jerry, whose team improved to 11-9 on the season. “But we’ve got a lot seniors who didn’t want this to be their last game.”

Hart clung to a 6-4 lead after a turnover-riddled first quarter.

Shelby took its first and only lead of the game when senior Tyler Schouten made a layup with just four seconds left in the second quarter to put Shelby ahead 16-15 at intermission.

“I felt good about how we finished the half,” said Shelby head coach Rick Zoulek. “We made better choices, especially on the offensive end.”

But the much more experienced Pirates opened the second half by scoring five straight points, held Shelby to just two points in the third quarter, and led 24-18 heading into the fourth.

“We’re the kind of team that can do that defensively,” Jerry said. “We just have to be patient and not get out of position. Just let the game come to us.”

Shelby trailed by nine points early in the fourth quarter, but managed to fight back and stay in the contest. With about two minutes left, Schouten drove the baseline, nailed a layup and was fouled. He added a free throw to draw the Tigers within one point, 33-32.

Isaac Hertzler looks to go up for a baseline shot in front of Shelby’s No. 21 Isaiah Frye. Photo/Leo Valdez

But Hart’s senior guards, O’rian Torres and Simon Herrera, each sank two free throws down the stretch to seal up the victory.

Torres paced Hart with 13 points. Another senior, Dustin Klotz, finished with seven points and seven rebounds. The Pirates won the rebound battle 31-27.

“I don’t think O’rian was the leading scorer in any one of our other games this season,” said Jerry. “But he was aggressive all game. He set the tone.”

Schouten finished with a game-high 18 points for Shelby. Tristan Landis added nine points and Isaiah Frye snagged seven rebounds.

Shelby finished the season with a 2-18 overall record.

Zoulek, who last month recorded his 700th career victory as the Shelby boys head coach, knows his young team definitely improved over last few weeks of the season.

“I’m going to miss those three seniors,” Zoulek said. “When you have so many freshmen and sophomores on the team, it takes time to know each other and improve both your individual and team skills. I’m just proud they worked and played so hard every game.”