With its 10-point lead evaporating, and Hudsonville Unity Christian appearing to hit its stride, it would have been easy for the Spring Lake boys basketball team to panic or even crumble under the pressure of the moment.
But this particular Lakers squad appeared impervious to the outside noise during Monday’s Class B regional semifinal at Sparta High School, reports the Grand Haven Tribune.
After clinging to a one-point lead midway through the final quarter of play, Spring Lake made the winning plays on the defense and, most surprisingly, the free throw line, to close out a 53-46 win over the Crusaders.
“When I started doing my homework on them (Unity Christian) after the Whitehall game, I realized they are very similar to us,” said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core after the game. “They grind it out on defense, they don’t really have any superstars, they have balanced scoring, and they run a motion offense. It was really like we were preparing to play ourselves in a lot of ways.
“So, we were pretty evenly matched. If we played each other 10 times, there’s a good chance it’s 5-5 at the end of the series. I told the guys before the game, ‘We’re evenly matched with them, so we have to go out there in the first four minutes of the game and let them know that we came here to play.’”
And the Lakers did just that, forcing 11 first-half turnovers to hold Unity Christian to just 19 points at the break, and helping the Lakers take a 27-19 lead.
In the third quarter, however, it was the Lakers who were turnover-prone. The team struggled with its entry passes from the perimeter to the post, resulting in seven turnovers in the eight-minute stretch.
“I think we just tried to force the passes inside too much,” Core said. “We had way too many turnovers in that third quarter trying to lob it to our bigs, and they took advantage and came right back at us.
“We never gave up the lead during their run, though, and I think that’s a credit to our mental composure as a team.”
After only mustering eight points in the third, the Lakers exploded for 18 points in the final frame. There were a few plays in the closing minute of play that Core thought sealed the deal for his club.
“There were two key plays in my mind that helped us get the win,” Core continued. “When we were hanging onto a one-point lead, Isaiah (Pierce) got a steal, went coast-to-coast, hit the Eurostep, got fouled, made the basket, and most importantly, made the free throw afterward.
“Right after that, they tried to roll the ball down the court to save time, and Griffin (Lorimer) just launches from out of nowhere to grab it, and we get the quick timeout. We ended up making our free throws after that, and I don’t think it ever got close again after that.
“Those were two big plays down the stretch that helped us win the game. Add that with our composure, key defensive stops and our free throw shooting, and that’s how you win a playoff game.”
Pierce, who scored seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter, was just happy he got the call on that decisive play.
“I kind of held my breath, because I thought I was going to get called for the charge on that,” he admitted after the game. “I’m sure it kind of looked like I pushed him, but I’m glad I got that call, and I’m glad I made that free throw.
“I’ve been working really hard on my free throws. I’m usually the last one at the gym after practice, because I want to get as many reps in as I can. I’m just glad I made them in the game, in a big moment like that.”
The Lakers turned their perceived free-throw shooting weakness into a team strength, knocking down 15-of-19 attempts from the charity stripe.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things, and we’ve really worked hard on that,” Core said of the team’s free throw shooting. “As a coach, when you have a weakness as a team, you address it. To see them work so hard to get better at that, and then they do get better at it, it’s pretty cool.
“And no one stays later after practice than Isaiah to work on his free throws. At some point, you’re just kind of saying to yourself, ‘this kid deserves to knock some of these down.’ It was a big game for him tonight, and he really took over that fourth quarter. I’m just really excited for him right now, and I’m proud of how hard he’s worked to reach it.”
Junior forward Griffin Lorimer and junior guard Jack VanWingen each scored 12 points to lead the Lakers (18-6), while senior point guard Cam Ball added eight points and nine assists against 0 turnovers.
“I think Griffin taking those three charges in the first half really set the tone for us, defensively,” Core added. “With Griff, it’s a confidence thing. He can shoot the three if it’s open, and he can knock those down. When he does, that brings the defense up a little bit, and then he can usually go by his defender off the dribble.
For Lorimer, he simply noticed a tendency early on in game and made the opponent pay for it.
“That’s something I always try to do,” he said of drawing charge calls. “I thought these kids looked like they were hard nosed, so I thought if they started driving, I could set my feet and take one. I got a few in the beginning, and they got in some foul trouble.”
Lorimer, a standout defensive end for the football team, used his gridiron technique to dive on the critical loose ball play late in the game.
“I just was running back and looking for my man, and I saw him looking down for the ball,” he said of the play. “I guess I just channeled some football and dove for it and got it. I remembered that coach had said that we had a few timeouts to use, so as soon as I got it, I called a timeout. It worked out well for us.”
The Lakers won’t have to strain too much when preparing for the next opponent in Wednesday’s regional final at Sparta High School (7 p.m. tip).
The Grand Rapids Catholic Central Cougars (19-4) defeated Grant, 52-31, in the other regional semifinal, setting up a third meeting with the Lakers.
The Cougars defeated Spring Lake (55-52) on Jan. 10 at home, and stole a 56-52 win on the road on Feb. 8.
“If we do match-up with them, we know each other pretty well,” Core added. “There won’t be any surprises as far as personnel. It’ll come down to whether or not we can control their frontcourt. They’ve got a huge frontline.
“We just need to do some things a little bit better to get over that hump. We’ve lost two close ones to them, and they always say, ‘it’s hard to beat a team three times’. Well, I think it’s even harder to beat a good team three times, and this is proving to be a pretty good team.”
“We’re playing pretty well right now, so let’s throw up the jumpball and get after it.”