But it was free throws — including four makes in the final minute by Ludington senior Tyler Morin — that helped Ludington (5-1, 3-0 Lakes Eight) steal a thrilling 72-69 victory at Spring Lake.
“They came into the game shooting 49.5 percent from the free throw line, and tonight they were 18-of-24, including 9-of-10 in the fourth quarter,” lamented Lakers’ coach Bill Core. “We’re shooting just under 70 percent on the season and tonight we’re 9-of-19.”
The contest was a wild one from start to finish. The Lakers (2-3, 1-2 Lakes Eight) raced out to a 22-10 lead early in the second quarter thanks to 10 first-quarter points from senior guard Michael Zietlow.
The Lakers’ lead eventually grew to 14 points, and the home team was on top 32-20 late in the second when Ludington caught fire. The Orioles ripped off a 12-0 run to tie the game at 32-all going into halftime, then Morin drilled a long 3-pointer to open the third quarter, making it a 15-0 spurt.
The Orioles weren’t done yet.
They outscored Spring Lake 22-3 over a 5-minute span in the second and third quarters and grabbed a 42-36 lead when Alex Timinski buried a 3-pointer three minutes into the third.
“We came out at home and were up 14 points, and it would have been easy for them to fold, but we know them, with (coach) Thad (Shank) and the type of team he has, scrappy and up-tempo, they’re never out of it,” Core said.
The Lakers responded with a run of their own. Austin Johnson, who was plagued by foul trouble all night, managed just two points through the first three quarters.
He caught fire in the fourth, scoring 15 points in the final stanza. His 3-pointer knotted the score at 61-all with 2 1/2 minutes to play.
The teams traded baskets before Ludington’s Boyd Meeker drilled a 3-pointer and Jacob Schoon scored on a move to the basket for a 68-63 lead with under two minutes to play.
With under 30 seconds remaining, the Orioles still led by four following a pair of Morin free throws. The Lakers missed a 3, but Spring Lake’s Adam Clauss stole a pass and found Zietlow, whose clutch 3-pointer from the corner splashed through the net to make it 70-69 with 8.8 seconds to play.
Morin again went to the line and was perfect, pushing the Orioles’ lead to 72-69, then Ludington’s pressure defense led to a Spring Lake turnover in the closing seconds.
“I’m proud of the fact that early in the game, it looked like we were buried and done and we didn’t quit,” said Shank, who had plenty of confidence in his team coming down the stretch.
“We’re built to play aggressively, and when we make the perimeter shot (they made 10 3-pointers), we can be hard to guard,” Shank said. “This is a hard place to come play. Spring Lake always has very good players and is always well coached. To leave here with a conference victory is very exciting.”
Zietlow finished with a game-high 25 points for the Lakers. He made six of his team’s eight 3-pointers. He only wishes he had gotten another shot at tying the game in the closing seconds.
“We didn’t want to give up,” the Lakers’ senior said. “This is our home court, and we didn’t want to give up anything on our home court. The atmosphere was just nuts.
“When Clauss stole that ball on the inbounds and I hit that shot, I thought we had it won. That last pass just led me a little bit outside and we didn’t have any timeouts left so I couldn’t do anything with it.”
Core was proud of his team’s effort, especially considering the adversity the Lakers played through. Three starters — Austin Johnson, Erik Johnson and Adam Clauss — were in foul trouble throughout the game. Austin Johnson, the Lakers’ leading scorer at nearly 20 points per game, sat out nearly the entire second and third quarters, and Erik Johnson was also on the bench for much of the night.
“With us being in foul trouble almost the whole game, that really changed our chemistry on the court,” Core said. “Austin had two points all night, then 15 in the fourth. I wish we had him in the second and third quarter. We really lost all our momentum in the second quarter when those two guys (Johnson and Johnson) were on the bench.”
Core credited Nick Goeglein and Austin Gabris with playing well for the Lakers, along with point guard Ben Keller. Logan Pellegrom was solid inside for Spring Lake, finishing with four points and 10 rebounds.
Zietlow was rock solid on both ends of the court. He held Ludington’s leading scorer, Boyd Meeker, to nine points, well below his season average.
“Michael had a great all-around game,” Core said. “He’s shown tremendous leadership.”
The Lakers must find a way to refocus in time for tonight’s non-conference showdown against Whitehall. That game will be played at 7 p.m. at Spring Lake.