This is why it’s called March Madness.
Portage Northern’s boys basketball team, a five-win, last-place team in the SMAC West Division, pulled a massive upset by beating West winner St. Joseph, 45-43, in the opening game of the Class A district tournament at Kalamazoo Central Monday night.
And the Huskies got the win by overcoming a lot. They did it without starting point guard Devin Marshall, who is out with a hip injury.
And they did it in spite of making six turnovers in the third quarter.
And only making 5 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter.
What Northern did the entire game, though, was play a lock-down zone defense which coach Ben Neal introduced to the team after the Huskies lost to the Bears last Thursday night. Northern also grabbed three crucial offensive rebounds after those missed free throws in the fourth to seal the victory.
‘’We talked a lot as an entire staff – freshman, junior varsity and varsity coaches – after last Thursday night’s game (58-39 loss),’’ Neal said. ‘’How could we put our guys in the best situation to win?’’
The best situation was a 3-2 zone which put pressure on St. Joseph’s shooters, but also sagged in to cover the Bears cutters in the paint. But Neal is a man-to-man defense coach, so this defense was foreign to the Huskies.
‘’We trusted in coach and we knew it was going to work,’’ senior Michael Lincoln said. ‘’We saw it in practice and it was effective against our own guys and we have shooters.
‘’We thought we could come in and have a chance.’’
After three minutes were gone, Northern took the lead and never gave it up to the Bears (16-5 record). The Huskies quickness was able to hamper St. Joseph’s perimeter passing and shooting. In the final three quarters, St. Joseph made just 11 of 35 floor shots.
‘’We didn’t want their great perimeter guys to beat us,’’ Neal said. ‘’Coach (Gregg)Schaffer made adjustments and moved around Cade Shimulunas (a very good shooter), but our kids did a great job of talking about where their good shooters were.’’
Shimulunas led St. Joseph with 19 points and eight rebounds and center Trevor Dilley added 12 points and seven rebounds. However, only four players scored for the Bears.
Lincoln and sophomore Tyler Amos, who was playing the point for the injured Marshall, each scored 13 points. Cam French had nine points and eight rebounds, Torian Jackson added seven points and eight rebounds and Jeff Wilson had three points and four rebounds. Northern won the rebounding battle against the taller Bears, 34-32.
‘’We put the ball in Tyler’s hands and he is a great kid who did a great job,’’ Neal said. ‘’Cam and Michael hit some big shots and we got those big offensive rebounds at the end.’’
Northern led, 13-8, after the first quarter and 20-15 at the half. Then Lincoln hit three straight 3-pointers in the third to push the Huskies to a 33-25 lead after three quarters.
The Bears came within two points three times in the fourth quarter, 35-33, 42-40 with 1:03 left and the final score. Wilson provided a huge point with 34 seconds left when he banked in a free throw to make it 44-40. Lincoln added another free throw with 25 seconds left for a 45-40 game.
St. Joseph missed two long-range bombs before fouling Northern. Wilson had a huge offensive rebound after the second miss with just 10 seconds left. The Bears made it close when Shimulunas made a 3-pointer with one second left. Northern threw the inbounds pass long to Amos to end the game.
‘’St. Joseph is a great team and I hope our guys realize what a great team they just beat,’’ Neal said.
By the hollering in the locker room afterwards, they know.
Photos by Paul Morgan