If Bill Core would have known that his Spring Lake varsity boys basketball team would have held Sparta's top two scorers — 5-foot-9 point guard Jared Bradford and 6-8 center Ben Sheckler — to a combined 17 points on Monday in their Class B regional semifinal game, the Lakers' veteran coach undoubtedly would have believed his squad would be moving on to play another day.
The Lakers accomplished that impressive defensive feat against the Spartans' dynamic duo that combine to average more than 38 points a game.
But instead of advancing, Spring Lake's season came to a painful close, thanks to Sparta's supporting cast stepping up big and Bradford and Sheckler each making key defensive plays down the stretch in the Spartans' exciting 49-48 win at Fremont High School.
"It was a great, great high school basketball game," said Sparta coach Mike Cnossen. "Jared wasn't able to get into the rim or get some shots off he normally gets off, and we had trouble getting the ball inside to Ben. Thankfully we had some of our other guys make a huge difference for us tonight."
Sparta (18-5 overall) advances to Wednesday's regional championship, where it will battle Big Rapids, a 61-50 winner over Alma in Monday's other regional semifinal.
The Spartans benefitted from three huge first-half 3-pointers from senior guard Evan Stubbs, and clutch offensive and defensive plays from another unsung guard, Beau Dunneback, in the fourth quarter.
"I think Stubbs came in averaging about 6, so he really stepped up," Core said.
Sparta needed every contribution it could get, as it trailed most of the fourth, but whittled the deficit down to 48-47 with 1:05 remaining.
The game’s next two possessions were huge in swinging the game in Sparta’s favor. On the defensive end, the Spartans prospered from a questionable offensive foul call on Lakers' standout Austin Johnson.
Spartans' 6-7 forward Matt Dykstra then used his length to score on a putback in the paint, giving his team a one-point advantage with under 30 seconds remaining. Sparta took full advantage of its size advantage throughout with 10 offensive rebounds, none bigger than Dykstra's.
Spring Lake had plenty of time left to let Johnson create off the dribble, but the Lakers' all-time leading scorer was funneled to the corner, where he lost his dribble and couldn't find an open teammate with Sheckler's long frame crashing down. Johnson was forced into a blind pass that rolled out-of-bounds with 16.9 seconds left.
The turnover was a string of five straight Lakers' offensive possessions with under two minutes to play that came up empty.
"I thought we should have won," said Johnson, who closed out his stellar varsity career with a game-high 17 points. "I felt we were the better team. We just let it slip away at the end."
Spring Lake was forced to foul and sent Sheckler to the line, where the 90-percent free throw shooter missed the front-end of a 1-and-1.
Johnson was fouled near mid-court with under 10 seconds remaining, but it was just the Spartans' sixth team foul.
"It's panic at that point because that kid can play ball," Cnossen said of Johnson. "He can get to the rim with eight seconds left.”
But Johnson never had a chance to get to the rim. Instead, was stripped of the ball by Bradford, but not before a lot of contact right in front of the Lakers' bench.
“We were able to stop that and deny any passes and force a turnover. That was huge," Cnossen said.
Johnson felt a foul certainly could have been called on the play.
"He kinda jumped on my back, but in that type of situation, I don't know if they would have called a foul or not,” the Lakers’ senior said.
"(Sparta) had a 17-7 advantage in free throws," Core said. "They did a good job of applying pressure without fouling. With the lead late, we couldn't get to the line like we hoped."
Bradford pushed ahead after his sixth steal of the contest and found Sheckler, who was fouled with three seconds to play. Again, the Spartans' big man was surprisingly shaky at the charity stripe, missing the front end of another one-and-one, giving the Lakers potentially one last shot for the win.
"When he missed a couple, we were just shocked," Cnossen admitted.
In the Lakers' timeout huddle, Johnson suggested instead of him getting the ball and being swarmed, he should set a back screen to free open a teammate for a good look.
"I set a back screen for Erik Johnson, but they switched on it," Austin Johnson said.
"Erik couldn't get out cleanly, so the next choice was to roll back to the ball, but (the in-bounds pass) got deflected," Core said.
Sheckler skied and swooped up the loose ball and Sparta celebrated as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
It was a crushing conclusion for the Lakers, who came out on fire in their first regional contest in 18 years. Erik Johnson continued his strong play from the Lakers' district finals win over Whitehall on Friday by scoring seven of his 12 points in the first quarter on Monday. Spring Lake also received a 3-pointer from point guard Adam Clauss and two inside buckets from center Nick Goeglein, as the Lakers built an 18-11 lead.
The combination of Stubbs' hot outside shooting and Sparta's ability to create second chances in the paint helped it claw back and take a 26-25 lead into the half.
Cnossen said it was a huge confidence booster to have a lead at the half, with Bradford and Sheckler having just six points between them.
Bradford's first and only field goal came on a nice, twisting runner to give Sparta a 37-33 lead late in the third, but Austin Johnson quickly caught fire, as he connected on three-straight pull-up jumpers to bring the Lakers back.
"His ability to score is just uncanny," Core said. "You can't describe it until you see him and you just say, 'That kid's a scorer.'"
Johnson also led the Lakers with seven rebounds, while Clauss contributed six rebounds and six assists.
Johnson hit two more long jumpers to give his team a three-point advantage midway through the fourth quarter, and a J.P. Batts’ 3-pointer pushed the score to 48-44 with three minutes left — the Lakers' largest lead of the second half.
Core said it was difficult finding the words to ease a heartbroken team after the one-point setback.
"As a coach, if you have a speech prepared after a loss, you're a loser because you expected to lose," Core said. "But I told them once you have a chance to look back, this will be the most storied season in Spring Lake history."
The Lakers' 21 wins are the most in program history, which included a rare victory over neighboring rival Grand Haven, and a 12-0 mark in the Lakes Eight Conference.