SHELBY — Shelby coach Greg Gallaway wasn't exactly happy with the Whippets' defensive effort in the first half of possibly the biggest Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference game to date on Saturday night against Marion Harding.
So, he issued a challenge and the Whippets answered with a 63-54 win over the Presidents to knock Harding out of the three-way tie for first place in the league with Shelby and River Valley.
The Whippets thought three was a crowd, and now there are two.
It was an ideal start for the Whippets, who jumped out to a 13-4 lead in the first three minutes of the game to force a Harding timeout. Whatever Presidents coach Jamie Pearson said during the quick break woke up his team in a big way as it went on a 13-4 run to tie it up at 17 and even clawed back enough to take a 21-20 lead at the end of the first quarter.
What looked like a high-scoring affair turned into a defensive battle the rest of the way as Harding took a halftime 33-28 lead with a 12-8 advantage in the second quarter.
"One of our major focuses has been to get better defensively," Pearson said. "We mix it up, but I haven't been pleased all year with our half-court defense and it is something we have worked on a lot. We gave our kids a lot of credit because they came out and played decent half-court defense and gave us a chance to win the game."
The Whippets made defensive adjustments at halftime and came out refocused on offense. Jeremy Holloway's putback offensive board with 3:56 left in the third tied the score 34-34, which allowed the Whippets to gain enough momentum to end the quarter with a 5-3 advantage and take a 39-37 lead into the fourth.
Shelby allowed just four points in the third on just one field goal by keeping the Presidents out of the paint.
"We track different game goals for each game, and one of those is the paint-touch battle," Gallaway said. "In the first half, they were plus-12 on paint touches compared to us, so the emphasis in the second half was to keep them out of the paint. Then we wanted to win the paint on offense.
"That is a great team and we knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle, and I am happy with how we responded in the second half."
Shelby sophomore Alex Bruskotter, who finished with a game-high 24 points, admitted he and his team struggled shooting the ball in the first half so, while they worked out the offensive kinks, the focus switched to the defensive end.
"Our defense was the difference," Bruskotter said. "As a team, we weren't shooting it well from outside, so we knew it was a big game and so we needed to do something different to step up, and that came on the defensive end."
Pearson said it was just a tough lull in the third quarter as the Presidents (8-6, 7-2) simply missed shots and didn't get in the paint. Even when they did, Shelby made things very difficult with its length.
"They did some things to bug us," Pearson said. "They had a great game plan for us today and were able to make things difficult for us, so you have to give them a lot of credit.
"We haven't had a problem with pressure all season. It was a tough week for us, playing Tuesday, coming back Thursday for a league game and then having just one day to prepare for a huge game with title implications. We would have liked to have had more than one day of practice, but Shelby was in the same boat."
Both teams battled for momentum early in the fourth quarter. There were two ties and two lead changes in the first two minutes before Shelby took a 45-44 lead on a free throw by Bruskotter.
The Whippets never surrendered the lead from there and closed the game out on a 18-10 run, which included a 13-4 burst in the middle of the fourth.
The Whippets (12-3, 8-1) said they had to work for every point and the Presidents weren't going to let them have easy buckets.
"It was the most physical game we have played all year," Gallaway said. "We knew it was going to be because this is a huge MOAC game for both teams. We had a game Thursday and we wanted to focus hard on that, but we also knew we only had one day to prep for one of the biggest games of the year, and our guys did a great job maintaining composure and sticking to the game plan."
Bruskotter credited senior leader Holloway for being the calming factor through the physicality.
"Jeremy helped us keep our composure, and has all year long as our leader," Bruskotter said. "He has played in these big games during his career, and he knows we need to stay composed, build a lead and keep our focus on what we need to do."
Issaiah Ramsey had 16 points for the Whippets, while Andre Hill chipped in 13 to help Bruskotter carry the offensive load. Holloway finished with six points and Marshall Shepherd rounded out the scoring with four, all on free throws.
The Whippets were 26 of 32 from the free-throw line to compensate for making just one 3-pointer.
The Whippets remained in a tie for first place in the MOAC with River Valley, which beat Ontario 65-39 Saturday night. After playing Mansfield Senior on Tuesday, the Whippets travel to Galion on Saturday before heading to Highland on Feb. 3. With two wins, Shelby will host River Valley on Feb. 5 with a chance to take sole possession of first place in the league with two to play.
That's the plan.
"We can definitely build off of this win," Gallaway said. "We look at next week and we will play a very similar team in Mansfield Senior on Tuesday, so this was a good game to prepare for that one and our league game on Friday at Galion."
"There is always room for improvement," Bruskotter said. "But we figured out a way to win today, so that was the big takeaway from tonight. We weren't hitting our shots, but we still managed to win. We are still tied with River Valley, so we need to take each game seriously and cannot slip up on a team we are supposed to beat. Then we get River Valley back here so that will be a big one."
Wesley Stokes led Harding with 22 points while Riley Keeran added 14 and Marquis Long nine.
The Presidents host Highland on Friday and travel to Marysville on Saturday before going to River Valley on Feb. 3 with a chance to play spoiler and possibly get right back in the race for the league title.
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Still on top: Shelby beats Marion Harding to remain in a tie for first in MOAC