If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try and then try once again.
After losing their first three meetings during the regular season against KLAA Central Division foe Salem, the Northville boys basketball team broke through Wednesday night in the Class A district semifinal at Plymouth by holding off the Rocks for a 53-50 victory.
The magic elixir for the Mustangs, who moved into Friday’s district final against host Plymouth, was a 2-3 zone defense that forced Salem into 26.7 percent shooting from the field (15-of-56).
And it didn’t hurt that Northville (14-7) had its version of the Twin Towers in concert as 6-foot-8 Nathan Kellum, who missed a majority of the season with a dislocated knee, patrolled the paint area effectively along with 6-7 Ryan Roberts.
The senior tandem scored 14 and six points, respectively, but more importantly combined for seven blocks and a grabbed a bundle of rebounds.
“We finally got our two ‘bigs’ back underneath,” Northville coach Todd Sander said. “I thought they altered a lot of shots and it made a big difference when they were able to break us down off the dribble. Our guys played with a lot of urgency getting out to their three-point shooters.”
The first half proved to be a chess match as Northville led 12-11 after one quarter, while Salem came back to take a 22-21 halftime advantage.
“They blocked a few and they changed our trajectory,” Salem coach Bob Brodie said. “We didn’t take them up real strong a couple of times, especially in the first half. We had good looks in the first half and they didn’t fall, or we were real tentative with the shots. The key against a zone a lot of times is to offensive rebound, and we didn’t offensive rebound very well against them.”
The third quarter was Northville’s best as the Mustangs made 6-of-8 shots from the floor and built a 36-31 lead. Senior guard David Morrissey struck for nine of his team-best 16 points after being limited to four points and just three shots over the first two periods of play.
“I thought we handled their pressure a lot better in the backcourt,” Sander said of the 15-10 third-quarter surge. “A lot of times if you can get it out of that first trap you’re going to end up with a good scoring opportunities. David (Morrissey) made big plays in the second half. He had 12 of his 16 (points), all in the second half, and Nathan (Kellum) found some loose balls. We got a bunch of offensive rebounds. Guys really stepped up and made clutch plays down the stretch. Very proud of our team.”
After making just 7-of-28 first-half shots, Salem went only 2-for-9 in the third quarter and missed their first five attempts to start the fourth quarter as Northville slowed increased its lead to double-digits, 45-34, on a pair of free throws by sophomore guard Kevin Morrissey with only 1:53 left.
Salem (16-6) tried to make a late surge and could have cut it to three in the final minute, but couldn’t convert a layup after one of Northville’s seven turnovers during the quarter.
“You got to be able to shoot the basketball against the zone,” Brodie said. “It didn’t surprise us. We knew it was coming. We knew they used it against (Westland) John Glenn in the first round of the (KLAA) playoffs. We had actually one day to prepare for it, but we prepared for it a little bit prior to that, but you can’t look ahead at all. We just had to run our stuff and make some shots, and we didn’t do a very good job of that.”
Northville, meanwhile, was 17-of-36 from the floor (47.2 percent) and 16-of-26 (61.5 percent) from the foul line, including 13-of-20 over the final eight minutes.
“Those are interesting situations,” Sander said of trying to protect a late lead. “Salem certainly didn’t let back. I thought we let off the gas pedal a little bit, and we’re real smart. Fortunately we had enough timeouts to gut us through that last 30 seconds.”
Jon Swift and Jake Stropes, both seniors, paced Salem’s scoring attack with 17 and 15 points, respectively. Senior Allante Wheeler and junior center Kenny Topolovec each contributed six.
“This group was an overachiever,” Brodie said. “Graduating five seniors from a 17-6 team who went the regional … our expectations weren’t that great for this team. But I give those guys credit, they stepped up, went through a lot of injuries and adversity. Some players were down for us and others stepped up. Hey, they have a (KLAA Central) division championship and a nice record (16-6), which is a good record for wins. I’m proud of the way they played.”