By Nate Thompson

KENT CITY – The North Muskegon basketball team had its most dismal shooting night of the season on Friday, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Maybe more than anything, that was due to a stifling pressure defense posed by Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian, a style that the Norsemen hadn’t faced often this year.

NorthPointe Christian went on a 9-0 run early in the second quarter to grab the lead and never relinquished it, posting a 60-49 upset victory over the one-loss Norsemen in the Division 3 district championship game at Kent City High School.

The stunning loss prevented North Muskegon from capturing back-to-back district championships.

The Mustangs improved to 13-8 overall and advanced to Tuesday’s regional semifinal on their home floor, where they’ll face Pewamo-Westphalia.

TJ McKenzie brings the ball up the floor for North Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

North Muskegon, which captured the West Michigan Conference title this year, finished its season at 20-2. It’s only other loss was to league rival Montague midway through the season.

Norsemen head coach Chuck Rypstra repeated the dismal stat of the night at least five times when discussing the loss – his team made only 3 of 27 shots from beyond the three-point line.

“A lot of things went right for us, but the bad thing was, our shots just didn’t fall,” he said. “We’re not a 3-for-27 type of shooting team. But that’s a lot of credit to them. Again, you look up at that scoreboard, it’s 11 points. What’s 3 of 27? Nine percent? If we bump that up to 25 percent, we have a chance to win this game.

“We rushed a lot of our shots. That’s the way they play (defensively). Ludington is similar. Muskegon Heights plays that way, where they force you to make play after play after play. We’ve only seen two teams like them all year, so maybe that’s why we struggled.”

Both squads got off to a ragged start, combining for 14 turnovers in the first quarter, including nine by the Mustangs.

But NorthPointe gave an early glimpse that it came to play when junior guard Sam Vasiu scored the last six points of the first quarter – all in the final 45 seconds – to trim North Muskegon’s lead to 12-11. He led all scorers on the night with 23 points.

He then keyed the Mustangs’ full-court trapping defense, sparking a 9-0 run that put NorthPointe up 20-14 with 5:18 left in the half.  North Muskegon turned the ball over five times during the spurt.

The Norse’ John Hayhurst looks for the open man against the NorthPointe defense. Photo/Jason Goorman

But North Muskegon kept battling back, and a TJ McKenzie three-pointer helped the Norse claw to within 29-25 at halftime.

But whenever North Muskegon appeared to be ready to grab the lead, NorthPointe would make clutch plays and even bigger shots. A strong drive from Vasiu and dish to wide-open teammate Luis Delvalle for a easy triple put the Mustangs up 37-28 midway through the third.

NorthPointe led 40-36 entering the fourth quarter. While that was still a very close score, North Muskegon’s shooting woes preventing any late-game magic down the stretch.

NorthPointe scored the opening two buckets of the fourth and then began to stall with under four minutes to play, forcing the Norse out of their zone defense and into pressure man-to-man.

The Mustangs eventually forced North Muskegon to foul, and senior point guard Elijah Daley took advantage. The lefty sank 9-of-12 from the charity stripe in the final 2:40 and finished with 12 points.

“They have four guys that are tough,” Rypstra said. “The other night, it was Delvalle who played big. But I saw (Vasiu) earlier in the year. He’s tough. We had a hard time with him off the dribble.”

McKenzie, who made a strong case all season to earn All-State honors again, finished his outstanding career at North Muskegon with 17 points. Junior guard Eric Rypstra had 11 and Hayhurst totaled 10.

Rypstra commended his group of players that turned in a brilliant two-year stretch. North Muskegon had seven of its top eight back from last year, but a district title wasn’t in the cards.

“Extremely proud of this group,” Rypstra said. “All year long they’ve been steady. But we’ve only scored twice lower than we did tonight. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”