The Spring Lake boys basketball team battled through a tough opening half of play to survive a scare from upset-minded Montague on Wednesday night in a 47-37 win in the Class B district semifinals at Spring Lake High School.
The Lakers advance to play Oakridge, who defeated rival Whitehall 52-47 in the other semifinal.
Spring Lake held a narrow 13-12 advantage after the first quarter, but Montague was matching the Lakers shot for shot in the early stages of the game.
In the second quarter, Montague caught fire, draining outside shots and taking advantage of the strong play of junior Hunter Mosher in the post for a 29-23 lead at halftime.
"Honestly, we were lucky to be only down six at halftime," said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core. "We talked at halftime about how we just weren't shooting very well and Montague was shooting very well. Their best player, (Hunter) Mosher had 13 points and was scoring at will at times.
"So, I challenged our seniors. I told them that Montague doesn't have a single senior on their roster and they came out and played loose and were taking it to us on both ends of the court. They were stripping the ball away from us in the post, outrebounding us and just making the hustle plays.
"I hadn't seen that look in our seniors' eyes before, and I told them that we needed to find a new level of energy, especially on defense."
The Lakers heeded their coach's message in the second half, holding the Wildcats to just eight points and keeping Mosher out of the stat sheet for the final 16 minutes of play.
Spring Lake opened up the second half on a 9-0 run, but Montague would score a late bucket to bring the third quarter score to 32-32 heading into the fourth.
In the fourth quarter, the Lakers used their program staples of defense and rebounding to keep Montague at bay and sank timely free throws to ice the game.
"In the second half, I thought we did a much better job of getting our hands up on the shooters better and we made it harder for Mosher to get the ball in the paint with his back to the basket," added Core. "He's a good player, but we made it too easy for him to catch the ball in the post in a position to score.
"We decided to have Griffin and Sam switch on and off of him and switch how we defend him, too. We fronted him in the post a little more than we did in the first half and tried to bump him off his spot a little bit. He was too comfortable early on and you saw the difference in the numbers. He scored 13 in the first half and didn't score in the second half."
Johnson scored game-high 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Lakers (18-4), while Ben Arteaga added 10 and Kyle Wiersma added nine.
"Offensively, I thought we were getting good looks, but we just weren't making them," Core continued. "I think we still thought it was Monday night and we were just going to make 10 three-pointers again. We did need some inside-outside balance, but I thought we got more of that in the second half.
"We won because of our defense and rebounding, and that's how you advance in the postseason. It doesn't matter how you get there, whether it's good, bad or ugly, as long as you're advancing on that bracket in March."
Despite not scorching the stat sheet with offensive numbers, Core was happy to see two of his seniors, Jack VanWingen and Griffin Lorimer, make their presence known on the defensive end.
VanWingen hauled in 10 rebounds on the night, while Lorimer stymied Montague's Mosher with his physicality in the post.
"You probably wouldn't expect us to win many games when Griffin Lorimer doesn't score and Jack only has three," Core added. "Both of those guys were huge on defense for us in the second half though. Griffin made it difficult for Mosher to get any decent looks and Jack was all over the offensive glass for us and helped us get some extra possessions when we really needed them."
After a strange game against an Orchard View squad that tried to stall out the contest, Core believes his team needed to get pushed a little bit in a true playoff atmosphere.
"I think we needed a game like this," he admitted. "Monday night was kind of a weird game with an awkward flow to it and there wasn't that playoff intensity to it that you need. We didn't match Montague's intensity early on tonight. We responded well, but it took a minute. I think it's never a bad thing when you get humbled a little bit and you still win. We'll take it."
Now, the Lakers prepare for an Oakridge team that is red-hot after an impressive shooting display against Whitehall. The chance to capture their fourth district title in six seasons at home, however, won't be taken lightly by the red and gray.
"We're pretty excited about the opportunity. To have a chance to win a district championship on your home court is special," said Core. "We've put ourselves in a position to do that, but we need to be ready to match Oakridge's intensity on Friday if we are going to win.
"They're probably feeling good about themselves after beating a rival tonight and they shot the ball really well, too. No. 2 (Jaxon Fri) is a good shooter and he got hot against Whitehall. He made seven 3-pointers, so we're going to have to keep an eye on him on the perimeter. No. 12 (T.J. Ruel) is the coach's son and he might be the best player. It'll be an interesting battle. They are a gun-slinging team that can get hot at any point in the game. They've got a lot of confidence right now, so they are a dangerous team."