Erik Johnson took a shot to the face early in Friday’s Class B district championship game, but the Lakers’ senior didn’t let it slow him down.
He poured in 15 points, providing the Lakers with the offensive boost they needed to pull away for a rugged 53-46 win over Whitehall at Orchard View High School.
With the win, the Lakers advance to Monday’s Class B regional tournament, where they’ll meet Sparta at Fremont High School. Sparta (17-5) beat Fremont on Friday, 61-59.
“It’s just awesome,” Johnson said after the Lakers’ victory, which clinched their first district title since 1995. “It’s just an unreal feeling. It was awesome.
“No Spring Lake team has ever won both conference and districts, so there’s a lot of pride there. We’re all super excited.”
The Lakers ran the table in the Lakes Eight Conference, and entered the district tournament in an unfamiliar position: as favorites, boasting an 18-2 record.
“We’ve had some near misses, and the last time we hoisted a district championship was 18 years ago, and most of these kids weren’t even born yet,” said Lakers’ coach Bill Core. “It was one of those situations where, on paper, we were the favorite, which was a little different with everyone gunning for us because of the higher expectations and with the record we had. So it was a relief to be able to move on and finally get that district championship.”
The Vikings gave Spring Lake all they could handle for the game’s first 28 minutes. They led 30-28 at the half when sharp-shooting forward Isaac Love drained a 3-pointer from just inside half court to beat the buzzer.
The Vikings canned six triples in the opening half, including three by Love.
Spring Lake kept things close thanks to 3-pointers by Erik Johnson and Austin Johnson, and seven hard-earned points in the paint from junior center Nick Goeglein.
“Teams are averaging 42 points against us, and we’ve held 10 opponents under 40 points, so they had 30 at halftime, and we were crossing our fingers that they wouldn’t shoot as well in the second half,” Core said. “I’m proud of my team. We battled, and we were able to get some key defensive stops in the second half.
“We did a better job on Isaac Love. He had only three in the second half, and none in the fourth quarter.”
While the Lakers’ defense was clamping down, Whitehall’s defense seemed to tire, especially when it came to trying to contain Austin Johnson. The Lakers’ burly 6-3 forward began to get into the lane against the Vikings, and his array of driving buckets helped Spring Lake build a 47-43 lead late in the fourth quarter.
After Whitehall’s Matt Rohen scored on a tough driving basket, Erik Johnson answered for the Lakers as he swished a long jumper for a 49-45 lead.
An offensive foul on Whitehall center Matt Russell — his fifth foul of the game — gave the ball back to Spring Lake, but they were unable to convert.
Whitehall’s Devontae Vance, who finished with a team-high 14 points, split a pair of free throws to trim the Lakers’ lead to 49-46 with just over a minute remaining, Spring Lake was in no hurry to do anything on offense, and the Vikings came out trying to create a turnover. Instead, they fouled Austin Johnson, who made both free throws for a 51-46 advantage with 32 seconds to play.
Whitehall misfired on a pair of long 3-pointers, and the Lakers were able to celebrate with their fans as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“Every fan got their money’s worth tonight,” Core said. “It was a great game. Two high school teams left it all on the line. Whitehall, hats off to them. Nate (Aardema) had his team prepared. They played great, shot the ball well, that’s a heartbreaking loss for them. We feel for them. I know they played hard.
“On the flip side, I’m proud of my team. We battled.”
Core loved the effort from Erik Johnson, who in addition to pouring in 15 points played outstanding defense on Love.
“Erik, I hope he doesn’t have a broken jaw. He was in the trainer’s room, iced it the whole game, and at that point, I wasn’t going to ask him,” Core said. “As long as he didn’t say, ‘Coach, I can’t play.’ He stepped it up. He and Charlie Warber wore Isaac down.”
Austin Johnson finished with a game-high 26 points, just two days after being held to a season-low three points by Orchard View.
“They did a great job on Austin in the first half, keeping him out of the lane,” Core said. “He got a little bit more penetration in the second half. Maybe he wore them down. He’s a strong body. It takes a lot to keep him out of the lane. The Rohen kid had to lean on him for 32 minutes, and it made a big difference when Austin could get to the lane a little easier.”
Lakers’ point guard Adam Clauss didn’t score, but he did lead the team with six assists and helped Spring Lake dominate the turnover battle, 16-7.
Orchard View on the battle on the boards, 22-19, with Austin Johnson leading the Lakers with seven.