LINDEN — Johnny Shields wasn’t going to play much in Howell’s boys basketball season opener on Tuesday.
After all, he’d just been cleared to play basketball the weekend before after missing all of the preseason due to the lingering effects of a foot injury.
His coach, Nick Simon, said before the game that Shields might play “10-15 minutes,” due mostly to his guard’s lowered conditioning level.
Shields, a young man with a serious demeanor, allowed a slight grin when asked of the possibility that his coach had, maybe, fibbed about his playing time after Shields played the vast majority of his team’s minutes in a 74-68 overtime win at Linden.
“I think so,” he said. “Once the adrenalin hit, I just kept playing.”
It didn’t look like the Highlanders would need him in any kind of pinch early on. Howell led 25-11 early in the second quarter, and appeared to be en route to the rout the Highlanders had expected.
But Linden, which went through a 10-game losing streak last year before a surprise district win, roared back with an 18-4 run to end the half and tie the game at the half.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” junior Josh Palo said. “They went on a run and we really didn’t score for a while. We just lost some energy there. That’s why they went on a run. … Just shows we can’t come in and think we’re going to win. We’re going to have to play as hard as we can the whole time.”
The X factor for Linden was guard Blake Lund, a freshman who scored 12 of his team-high 24 points in the second quarter, hitting from both long and short range.
“Obviously, we weren’t aware of him,” Simon said. “We’ve got to do a better job recognizing and stepping up our game on those top players. But, for a freshman, man, I can’t say enough good things about that kid. He did big things in big moments and he was fantastic for a freshman.”
Palo was pretty good, too. He scored a team-high 34 points, going 13-for-15 at the line, while Shields added 13, hitting 11 of 12 from the free-throw line. Overall, the Highlanders were 28-for-24 at the line.
Howell won the game at the line in overtime, hitting 13 of 17 free-throw attempts.
“If they’re going to foul and give us free throws, you have to take them,” Shields said. “Free throws are a big part of the game, and it showed tonight.”
Linden was a source of nostalgia for Simon, who led Howell to its first district title since the 1920s back in 2014. For this crew of Highlanders, it was a reminder of what needs to be done to get back to that level of the state tournament.
“Linden did a fantastic job. I can’t speak to that enough,” he said. “But every first game is a test. You forget what it’s like. It’s a year off, and it takes a while to remember what that’s like. I think we got a good taste of that. I would imagine our practices in the next few days will be pretty good.: