The Bucs erased a 13-point first-half deficit Wednesday night in their district semifinal matchup at Reeths-Puffer and rolled through the second half to come out with a 78-58 victory over Mona Shores, earning a date with the Big Reds in the district championship on Friday.
Grand Haven trailed 20-10 after the first quarter and 26-13 one minute into the second before closing the gap to 32-31 at halftime and breezing through the second half.
“Mona came out with some fire,” said Grand Haven head coach Greg Immink. “Obviously, our defensive effort wasn’t where it needed to be. You have to give Mona a lot of credit; they were knocking down the open opportunities we were giving them.
“We didn’t have our fire or our defensive tenacity. Fortunately, we found it and that is what changed the game for us.”
Sophomore Owen Ross led the way with 21 points, including a 10-for-12 performance from the free-throw line.
“Owen really stepped up today,” Immink said. “He finished around the basket, knocked down a couple of key three-pointers and made all the free throws. That was important for us today. We hope that is something we can come to expect from him. He played great as just a sophomore in his first game in the district tournament.”
Kellum Bridgeforth followed in scoring with 17 points, just ahead of fellow seniors Dimitrius Neely with 15 and Malic Love with 12.
The Sailors had a more concentrated effort with James Gilbert scoring 23 points and Jarvis Walker pouring in 22.
Grand Haven fell back into bad habits with a sluggish start to the game on defense and cold shooting on offense. Meanwhile, Mona Shores hit the floor hot, nailing three 3-pointers and pushing their transition game to take a 20-10 lead after the first quarter.
The Bucs found their shooting stroke to kick off the second quarter, as Neely drilled a three-pointer on the opening possession. The sailors refused to yield; hitting back-to-back threes of their own to take their biggest lead of the night, 26-13, and force a Grand Haven timeout.
The stop and pep-talk by Immink proved effective at refocusing the Bucs. Mona Shores’ ballistic tempo to start the game had put Grand Haven in the bonus early in the second quarter, and they took advantage.
Bridgeforth kicked off a 15-0 Grand Haven run with a three-pointer before Ross drew and converted two straight perfect trips to the free-throw line. Love followed with a foul trip of his own before Neely nabbed a steal for a bucket. Bridgeforth ended what he started, securing a rebound and taking it coast-to-coast for the game-tying hoop.
Drew Sinke gave the Bucs their first lead since 2-0 with a three-pointer, before Mona Shores drew a few foul trips of their own. All said and done, the Sailors took a 32-31 lead into halftime.
“I told them, ‘We just have to start competing,’” Immink said of the game-changing timeout. “That first quarter was uncharacteristic of what our guys have shown all season, and they adjusted.”
Grand Haven took over in the third quarter as Love nailed a three-pointer to take back the lead. On the next possession, Love showed off his versatile skill set, taking the ball inside for a last-second dish to Ross for a momentum-shifting bucket.
Ross followed suit with a dagger three-pointer on the next trip up the court. From there, senior Tucker Beland took over, demoralizing the Sailor offense with three straight steals, forcing a Mona Shores timeout with the score at 42-34.
As time wound down in the third, Neely added insult to injury with back-to-back three-pointers, ballooning the Grand Haven lead. By the end of the third quarter, the Bucs had flipped the script, leading the Sailors by 13 points, 55-42.
The party continued in the fourth as Grand Haven put up another 23 points while holding Mona to just 14, bringing a contentious game to an unceremonious end.
The semifinal beatdown lands Grand Haven in a familiar spot — a district finals matchup with Muskegon. The Big Reds have knocked the Bucs out of the playoffs every season since 2010, but this year, Grand Haven took the regular-season game.
“It isn’t a surprise. Muskegon is one of the top teams in the area, maybe one of the top teams in the state. That has kind of been the story in this district the past couple of years is Muskegon being the team everyone is trying to knock off,” Immink said. “They present a whole lot of challenges for us. They are well-coached, they have a whole bunch of good players who play very well together.
“We will give them our best go on Friday. We are excited about the opportunity. It should be a great game.”
Tip-off Friday is slated for 7 p.m. at Reeths-Puffer High School.