They just didn't care.
The Lakers played loose and free in the opening quarter, jumping out to a 26-9 advantage to leave the rest of the gym in shock as the proverbial title favorites looked shell-shocked.
However, the Cougars would pick themselves off the floor and surge ahead thanks to the play of their Division 1 standout Marcus Bingham Jr. and outscore the Lakers 54-26 the rest of the way for a 63-52 win.
"We didn't come here just to be competitive, but at the same time, I think we earned the respect of everyone in that building with the way we played tonight," said Spring Lake senior center Sam Johnson. "We know we can play with anybody when we play our game, and we weren't planning on getting blown out this time around.
"We came to play and I'm proud of the way we competed out there. I've been blessed to be a part of this team and be coached by this coaching staff the last three years. We came here to win, and we didn't get that, but we fought hard."
The senior trio of Johnson, Jack VanWingen and Griffin Lorimer closed out their seasons in emphatic style, with VanWingen scoring 18 points, Johnson adding 14 and Lorimer chipping in with 11.
The Lakers close out their season with a 19-5 record with three losses to Catholic Central, one loss to Forest Hills Central (18-3) and one loss to conference rival Coopersville (15-7).
Bingham Jr. finished with 29 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Cougars (21-2), who advance to face Grand Rapids South Christian in Wednesday's regional final. The Sailors easily dispatched Fremont 74-27 in the second game of Monday's doubleheader.
The first quarter couldn't have gone much better for the Lakers, as Spring Lake jumped out to an early 7-0 lead thanks to five quick points from Johnson.
Then, Bingham Jr. picked up his second foul of the game with 3:42 left in the opening quarter. Riding a wave of momentum, VanWingen got hot from outside, knocking down three 3-pointers to extend the Laker lead to 26-9 after eight minutes of play.
“My teammates were just doing a great job of getting me the ball,” said VanWingen. “Ben (Arteaga) and Griffin were throwing those long passes to me and I was wide open. We were just feeling it as a team. It was a great quarter. We just believed, and we knew we were a good team. We knew we could hang with them, so we just kept believing.”
Grand Rapids Catholic Central would come storming back in the second quarter with tenacious half-court defense and some highlight reel dunks by Bingham Jr. off alley-oop feeds from point guard Austin Braun.
Head coach T.J. Meerman rolled the dice by playing his standout performer for six full minutes with two fouls in the first half, but his faith paid off in spades as the Cougars battled back to a 28-26 deficit at halftime.
"We were all feeding off each other early on," said Johnson of the first-quarter run. "We had some good, open looks and we were knocking them down. In the second quarter, we got kind of cold from the floor and they started turning those misses into run outs the other way, and it kind of snowballed on us.
"We should have done a better job of handling that. We should have been more patient on offense, moved the ball around and got to the free-throw line more. We got a couple early fouls on Bingham, but we weren't able to capitalize on that in the second quarter."
The Lakers implemented a zone defense against the Cougars in an effort to clog up the paint against the size of Bingham Jr. (6-11) and Jacob Polakovich (6-8). It worked early, but weakside rebounding became an issue due to the 7-2 wingspan of Bingham Jr.
"We tried to throw a zone look at them and give something different than our usual defensive sets," Johnson added. "The only problem is that sometimes that leaves the backside open for offensive rebounds and Bingham is capable of making you pay for that.
"We weren't fazed by the dunks. We've seen people dunk before, but they were getting more and more confident as a team and he really helped spark that. I think we were playing a little too fast to try and make a play to stop their run, but that just compounded things."
The third quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with each team going on miniature runs in an attempt to outduel the opposition. The Lakers jumped out to a 42-35 lead, but a quick response by GRCC had the game knotted at 42.
The fourth quarter would begin with the Lakers holding a 44-43 lead, but Bingham Jr. would catch fire. A breakaway dunk brought the crowd to a roar and the slim playmaker would show his range on the next possession by knocking down a long-range three-pointer that put the Cougars up 50-44 early on in the quarter.
Catholic Central would institute a stalling offense to run some clock and force the Lakers to foul the rest of the way. The Cougars would knock down seven of their nine attempts to ice the game, despite a few rallies by the Lakers in the final minute of play.
"It would have been nice to have a quarter like that to end the game," said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core of his team's hot start to the game. "We had trouble sustaining that for four quarters of play, but that was a statement quarter for our team and our program.
"That showed everybody that we came here to win and we believed in ourselves when not many people were giving us a chance. There was just too much time left for a very talented team. We got a little tired in that second quarter and our shots weren't falling. They gradually came back and they made the plays in the fourth quarter to pull ahead and made their free throws to seal the win."
One of the downfalls to the Lakers' red-hot first quarter was that it took away from the team's usual subbing rotation.
"Because we started so hot, I didn't go to my bench as much," added Core. "I didn't want to take those guys off the court because they were feeling it. The only problem with that is that they used so much adrenaline early on that we kind of run out of gas.
"That was a great effort from our guys tonight, and I couldn't be prouder of what they displayed out there on the court. Anybody who was in this gym tonight knows we were right there. They escaped tonight."
The Lakers will have quite the experience gap to fill next season with six seniors moving on from the program. The three-year varsity starters in Johnson, Lorimer and VanWingen will be hard to replace as a people, let alone basketball players.
"First off all, they are first-class people," Core continued. "Those three are all 4.0 students and they are quality individuals and great teammates. Whenever I watch tape of our games, they are always the first ones off the bench to cheer on the reserves when they score.
"They really bought in from Day 1 and that's one of the cool things about high school sports. I've known these guys since they were in fourth or fifth grade and I've gotten to watch them grow up from scrawny kids to young men who can shave."
Core was equally proud of his other three seniors, who dealt with their own adversity to become significant members of a successful program.
"The relationships are what make this all special and all six of these seniors will be sorely missed," said Core. "Jason Keena would probably be a starter on most teams in our league, but he didn't complain about it. He just battled with Griffin and Sam at practice and was ready on the queue whenever he was called upon.
"Ben Arteaga might be the most improved player from last year to this year. He ended up shooting almost 54 percent from the three-point line and worked so hard on his game over the offseason to be the floor leader for us this year.
"Adam Boes was a starter for us early on this year, and he got sick and could never really shake it until about two weeks ago. He is one of the best defenders on the team, he's a great athlete and he made a lot of big plays for us."
Johnson reflected on his team with Coach Core and credits his growth as a player and person to the man he's watched coach Spring Lake basketball for as long as he can remember.
"He's been a huge influence on me," he said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I would go varsity games and see him on the sidelines and say, "man, I can't wait to play for Coach Core when I'm older', and he's an awesome coach.
"I've never seen a coach work as hard as he does, especially in the film room. He always has us prepared for our next opponent. He does an unbelievable job and deserves all the credit in the world for the success of this program. I know I'm blessed to have had him as my coach."