With his team clinging to a one-point lead in the fourth quarter in hostile territory at Fruitport High School, Spring Lake varsity boys’ basketball coach Bill Core watched nervously from the sidelines and got a glimpse of the final play orchestrated by the Trojans.
He saw the ball go into the hands of Trojans’ center Amilio Flores. Core saw the release on a very makeable shot in the paint. From there, it was a sea of chaos.
“I thought it went in,” Core admitted. “Then I saw our kids raise their arms up and start celebrating and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I thought he made it.”
For once, the veteran Lakers’ coach was happy to be wrong, as Flores’ slight fade-away shot hit the back iron and bounced away, giving Spring Lake a thrilling 53-52 victory. The Lakers remain on pace to become the first Lakes Eight Conference team in league history to complete a perfect conference slate, as they improve to 11-0, as well as 16-2 overall.
The Lakers’ latest victory was unlike any other they’ve encountered this season, as a majority have been by double figures. Friday, was an entire different situation, as they had to scrap and claw not to fall behind by double figures themselves in the fourth quarter against a determined Fruitport squad.
Behind a tremendous performance from its backcourt trio of Aaron Veihl, Tyler Fehler and Caleb Cutler, Fruitport surged to a 43-39 lead at the end of three quarters, then pushed the advantage to eight after Flores stepped out at the top of the key and canned a 3-pointer with 5:50 to play.
The 48-40 deficit was an obvious jolt to the system for Spring Lake, as standout forward Austin Johnson said he expected an easy win entering Friday.
“I thought we’d win by 15 or 20,” he said. “But (Fruitport) hit some shots. It’s good for us to have a game like this because our wins have been by 10-plus points the entire year. “
To the Lakers’ credit, they didn’t fold under tough circumstances on the road. They quickly trimmed the eight-point deficit with a huge 3-pointer by sophomore Kyle Zietlow and a runner from senior J.P. Batts.
Core also had his players apply some full-court pressure defense, which played a big role in frazzling Fruitport down the stretch.
Spring Lake kept inching closer and closer and Fruitport kept squandering chances to ice the victory with fewer than 2 mintues to play. Veihl, who led Fruitport with 23 points, couldn’t keep up his magnificent performance going in the clutch. He missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 54 seconds left, and then missed a layup, an ensuring short putback attempt, and another 1-and-1 free throw nearly 25 seconds later.
“When you’re up, you’ve got to be able to close and finish plays,” said Fruitport coach Bill Andree, whose team falls to 8-9 overall and 6-6 in the Lakes Eight. “We just didn’t finish plays down the stretch and it’s going to be hard to beat a team like Spring Lake.
“We could easily be sitting at nine wins in the conference right now,” he added. “We’re about eight points away from that. But it boils down, again, to you’ve gotta make plays down the stretch.”
On the other end, Spring Lake has one of the best closers in West Michigan in Johnson, who entered the game averaging 24 points per game. He scored 23 on Friday, despite playing much of the fourth quarter with four fouls.
With his team down one with 20 seconds remaining, Johnson drove with a head of steam to the rim, but missed on his first attempt off the glass.
“The first shot I got was one I wanted, it was like a right-handed layup bank, but I missed it. I shot it too low,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, Erik Johnson kept it alive, it bounced to me and I put it back in. It felt good, going up one with 8 seconds to go.”
“Once it went on the floor I just had a feeling that Austin would come up with it,” Core said. “He’s so strong and he has that ‘I’m not going to lose’ will to win.”
Andree called for a timeout and set up a strong play, with Veihl creating off the dribble, drawing the defense and dishing to Flores.
“I thought he was making that shot,” Johnson said. “It was a defensive breakdown on our part. I was shocked he missed it, but happy he did.”
Several Trojans slumped to the floor in disbelief, as a win that easily would have been their brightest moment of the season instead turned into more heartbreak.
“We can take heart that we held tough with the best team in the league,” Andree said. “Hopefully we’ll carry that into our next few games. It’s a matter of moving on. But it’s going to hurt tonight.”
Core simply said that Fruitport “deserved better.”
“They were outstanding, but we’re conference champs for a reason and I told our kids that champs win these types of games,” Core said. “They find a way.”
Zietlow had a strong shooting night with three 3-pointers and 12 points for the Lakers. Center Nick Goeglein led with eight rebounds, while Erik Johnson added six boards. Point guard Adam Clauss totaled five points and four assists.
Fruitport, which scored just 28 points total in their first meeting against Spring Lake, had 25 at the half Friday. Fehler finished with 12 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, Cutler contributed five points and six assists and Flores scored 11.