Spring Lake varsity boys basketball coach Bill Core said he's never coached a player more committed to improving in the game of basketball than Austin Johnson.
All those long hours working on his jump shot and building his body in the weight room came to fruition for Johnson on Monday at Orchard View High School, as he scored 18 points in the Lakers' Class B district quarterfinal game against Coopersville — pushing his career total to 1,217 and surpassing Casey Hager as Spring Lake's all-time career leader in scoring.
Once Johnson connected on his 18th point — a tough fall-away runner over a pair of Broncos' defenders near the foul line with just over 2 minutes to play in the third quarter — Spring Lake students Billy Belcher and Christian Ostrowski ripped down posterboard pieces featuring a '2', '1' and '0' taped above the court on Orchard View's indoor track as they kept an official tally on the potential record throughout the game. Spring Lake fans instantly recognized the achievement and stood as one, while giving Johnson an impressive roar of approval.
"It was a pretty cool scene," Core said.
Seconds later, Core removed Johnson from the game, as the Lakers were well on their way to winning easily over the one-win Broncos, 65-38.
In his typical fashion, Johnson showed little emotion, as he just clapped hands with his teammates and coaches and took a seat on the bench next to his brother, Lakers' assistant coach Lance Johnson.
"About half-way through the season, I knew I'd break it, unless I started putting up zeroes," Johnson said after the win. "I wasn't worried about it. If it came, it came. I'm more worried about winning, since it's one-and-done now."
While his focus remains on helping Spring Lake capture its first district title since 1995, the 6-foot-3 forward said he'd probably appreciate the record more once his final prep season is complete.
"It's definitely a bigger deal than (scoring) 1,000 points because nobody can say they're the leading scorer in Spring Lake history other than me," he said. "So that feels good. But I still want to focus on the playoffs. Probably after the season, I'll be more happy about it."
While Johnson stole the show, it was Lakers' point guard Adam Clauss who sparked the Lakers throughout the first half, scoring all 12 of his points — including three 3-pointers.
Coopersville actually hit back-to-back 3-pointers to open the contest, but the Lakers' floor general made the Broncos pay for their defensive game plan at doubling Johnson when he had the ball, or cheating into the paint on his drives to the rim. Clauss' red-hot stroke helped Spring Lake close out the first quarter on a 12-2 run, and the hot shooting became contagious. J.P. Batts' 3-pointer extended the Lakers' advantage to double digits for the first time mid-way through the second quarter at 29-17, and the rout was on.
Spring Lake was a blistering 6-of-9 from beyond the 3-point line in the first half alone, and connected on seven triples total. The Lakers finished the game 24-of-47 from the floor (51 percent).
Core said it's been gratifying seeing Clauss' improvement from deep, especially since he started the season often misfiring.
"I guarantee he's spent a lot of extra time after practice working on his shot," Core said. "A combination of hard work and confidence has made a difference. I know he's well over 40 percent (from 3) now and that's after a pretty cold start."
"Teams have been packing it in a lot on us and trying to take away the drive, but when we screen away, that opens the backside for us," Johnson said. "And Adam's been hitting almost 50 percent from 3 during his last like seven games and so is Kyle (Zietlow). We're getting good looks and knocking them down."
Clauss' shooting has also aided players such as junior center Nick Goeglein, who scored nine points against the Broncos, and helped the Lakers dominate on the board, 30-17.
"The beginning of the year, he was facing a lot of double teams down low and getting the ball knocked away, but with Adam's shooting, they can no longer cheat down and it's created some space for Nick," Core said.
Coopersville's struggles were magnified in the closing minutes of the first half. First, Spring Lake's Charlie Warber hustled into the paint, wasn’t boxed out and tipped in a missed shot to make it 34-19. After a Broncos' miss, Batts was fouled tracking down the rebound and sank a pair of free throws with six seconds on the clock. Coopersville's ensuing in-bounds pass went sailing out-of-bounds, and Spring Lake calmly found Johnson open for a corner 3-pointer with two seconds left, which he buried for his 14th point of the half and a 39-19 lead.
The only suspense of the second half was when and how Johnson would break the record. It came on arguably his most difficult shot of the evening, set up by a strong cross-over dribble so he could drive to the paint.
"I was actually trying to get fouled because they were hand-checking me," he said. "So I just threw it up."
Erik Johnson grabbed a team-best five rebounds for the Lakers, while Jeff Marod and Warber each totaled four. Clauss also dished off a four assists.
Coopersville actually had more 3-pointers (7) than two-point buckets (5). The Broncos were led by guard Nate Darcy's 11 points.
Spring Lake, which is now 19-2 and ranked No. 10 in Class B, moves on to Wednesday's semifinal against rival Orchard View, where the Lakers will look to defeat the Cardinals for a third time this season.