By Greg Gielczyk

MANISTEE — Overcoming a bad first half, when it couldn’t buy a basket against an inspired Manistee Catholic Central defense, the Mason County Eastern boys basketball team rallied for a heart stopping 39-36 victory in the Western Michigan D League game at Manistee.

Eastern trailed by 10 at halftime, and could easily have thrown in the towel after experiencing its struggles on offense.

But, the Cardinals regrouped in the locker room during the intermission with a renewed purpose and found the energy they lacked in the first 16 minutes.

“It was a pretty ugly start,” Eastern head coach Mark Forner said. “Nick (Fortier, the Sabers’ coach) does a nice job. It was Senior Night and Parents night, and I think they kind of rode that emotion.

“We were stagnant and couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. We played tentative.”

That tentativeness caused the Cardinals to be just a little short on their shots, or not put enough power behind the close-in attempts when they penetrated the paint or tried to score on those soft finger rolls.

Worse, the Sabers dominated the defensive glass, with senior Kyle McLinden frequently the Saber hauling down those missed shots and clearing the rebound out to one of his teammates who would race down to the other end and score.

The Sabers started the first quarter with a 4-0 run before Eli Shoup finally got the Cardinals on the scoreboard with a pair of free throws at 4:41 of the opening period.

Nate Wing got free inside for a layup that closed the gap to one, 7-6. It was the last point the Cardinals would score in the first quarter as the Sabers scored the last seven unanswered and took a 14-7 lead at the buzzer.

The Sabers extended their lead to a 13-point margin, 19-6 midway through the second quarter.

Eastern continued to miss shots and turn the ball over, giving the Sabers extra possessions.

But, the Sabers failed to convert on their chances as well, and scored just two more points the rest of the half to finish with a 7-4 advantage. The Cardinals trailed, 21-11 at the half.

Instead of going to the locker room during the break, the Cardinals remained on the court and took some shooting practice.

“We didn’t go in at halftime, and I told the guys ‘Get some shots up,'” Forner said. “We didn’t shoot particularly well the first half. But, our kids are grinders.

“I told them ‘We’re going to come out, create some turnovers on the defensive end, we’re going to knock down a couple three’s, and we’re going to win it on the free throw line.’ That’s kind of what happened.

“They gave us all we wanted tonight.”

Eastern still had a 10-point deficit, 24-14 with 5:26 left in the third quarter when they started their comeback, finishing the third quarter with an 11-2 run that brought then within one, 26-25.

Wyatt Crawford knocked down two 3-point shots to close the quarter for the Cardinals, and that seemed to take some of the air out of the Sabers.

Clay Shoup hit a 3-pointer at the onset of the final period, which gave the Cardinals their first lead of the game, 28-26. He followed that up by scoring on a putback to extend Eastern’s lead to four, 30-26 with 5:24 left in regulation.

Tyler Hallead, a freshman drilled a 3-pointer that shaved the Eastern lead to one, 30-29 and the Sabers regained the lead, 31-30 at the 4:49 mark.

Crawford answered with a triple for the Cardinals, and they regained the lead for good, 33-31. Eli Shoup made a pair of free throws and went back up with an offensive rebound to stretch the Cardinals advantage to six, 37-31.

The Sabers wouldn’t go away, though, as Lee Pizana hit back-to-back baskets in the close minute and a half to get them back to within one, 37-36 with 1:04 to play.

But the Cardinals sealed it with two free throws by Crawford. The Sabers had one last chance with eight seconds left, but they were called for traveling with just over a second remaining and the Cardinals escaped, outscoring the Sabers 14-10 in the fourth quarter.

“Big defensive plays, deflections made a difference,” Forner said. “Catholic had a chance to win it. We talk about trying to finish strong all the time, and the kids were able to do that despite a poor first half.”

The Cardinals were led by Eli Shoup who scored 21 points, while Crawford finished with 12.

Manistee Catholic was led in scoring by Pizana with 11 points and he also had eight rebounds. Nathan Barnett scored 10 and had two steals. McLinden also had 10 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.

Eastern has now won three consecutive games and improved its record to 15-5 overall. The Cardinals finished 14-4 in the conference, and open the MHSAA Division 4 district at Mason County Eastern on Monday against Big Rapids Crossroads.