MUSKEGON — During a three-game losing streak earlier this month, Grand Haven head coach Greg Immink remained positive in his season outlook for his Buccaneers, despite a string of heartbreaking losses in O-K Red Conference play.
With each passing contest, he insisted that his squad had yet to play their best basketball of the season.
Monday night pitted the upset-minded Buccaneers against No. 4-ranked Muskegon in the opening round of the Division 1 district tournament — and just like their head coach had predicted all season long — Grand Haven saved their best for last.
The Buccaneers jumped out to an early lead, but the Big Reds had an answer at every turn, eventually pulling away late for a 64-57 win on their home court.
Muskegon (18-3) advances to play Grand Rapids Union (11-9) on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the district semifinals.
"I had a good feeling about tonight," said Immink after the game. "The focus of our guys at practice this past week and the way they've competed for these last three or four weeks gave me a lot of confidence that we would play our best ball at the end of the year.
"It's not always about the wins and losses. I think one of the biggest things that define a team is how far they come over the course of the year. If you compare how we played that first month of the season to how we played tonight, it's really a night-and-day difference.
"That's a credit to the players. As coaches, we can help guide them toward that goal, but they were the ones that did it on the court. I'm just really proud of them for the effort they played with tonight. I know they earned a lot of people's respect in this gym."
Grand Haven's offense was firing on all cylinders early, as senior guards Bryce Taylor and Mason Mahacek got to the rim at ease. Junior center Adam Strom added a few putbacks in the post, as well, helping the Buccaneers stun the Big Red crowd as they took a 19-13 lead into the second quarter.
Muskegon came storming back early in the second quarter to tie the game at 19-19 with some timely defensive stops and transition offense, but Grand Haven answered back with a run of their own to take a 29-23 lead late in the quarter. The Big Reds used back-to-back steal-and-score plays to end the half only down 29-27.
Vernon Nash got hot from outside in the third quarter, scoring seven points for the Big Reds, as his squad took a narrow 45-43 lead into the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers stayed within striking distance, however, thanks to a 10-point quarter from Casey Constant.
The fourth quarter saw Muskegon extend their defense, as well as their lead, as they would eventually take a 53-47 lead midway through the quarter. The Buccaneers continued to chip away at the lead, but a Nash and-one play, followed by a controversial offensive foul on a breakaway opportunity for Grand Haven stymied the comeback effort for the Bucs.
Down 58-52 late in the game, Grand Haven was forced to foul and hope the Big Reds missed their free-throw attempts. Muskegon closed the door on the upset bid by going 14-for-14 from the free-throw line for the game, including a 7-for-7 performance from Nash in the fourth quarter.
"I thought we played a great game tonight, but let's not pretend like Muskegon didn't play great, too," said Immink. "They didn't miss a free throw the whole game and they got some timely baskets from their best players, and they've got a bunch of them.
"At the same time, our guys just kept fighting. They stuck with the gameplan and never quit. Every time Muskegon made a run, we were able to tie the game back up. Muskegon just executed at the free-throw line and made a few stops when they needed them."
Nash finished with 21 points to lead the Big Reds, while DeAndre Carter had 12 points and Billie Roberts added 10.
Constant scored 21 points, including 17 in the second half, to lead the Bucs, while Taylor added 17 and Strom added 10.
"Adam battled all night long down in the post," said Immink. "Fouls eventually took him out of the game, but what an effort from him. He scored against a bigger defender pretty consistently, he was rebounding well and altering shots at the rim, too.
"Mason did an excellent job on Jarvis (Walker) defensively. Walker is a kid that averages 20 points a game, and Mason held him to nine points tonight. Bryce and Casey did an excellent job of controlling the ball and not turning the ball over against their pressure defense.
"Bryce did a great job of getting to the rim early and often and Casey hit a lot of big shots for us, too. It was an excellent game from everybody, and I couldn't be prouder of the effort."
Monday night's loss signaled the end of the road for six Grand Haven seniors: Mahacek, Taylor, Constant, Owen Bitner, Trevor Holleman and Jon Elias.
"I'm just really happy with how we played as a team tonight," said Constant. "I really don't think we could have played a better game than that. Coming to Muskegon's court, playing against a top 5 team in the state, we really did everything we could have.
"I'm sad the season is over, but I'm really proud of how hard we played tonight. We left it all out there. I was feeling pretty good about our chances early on, because we really started the game strong and had a lot of momentum heading into halftime. I really started to believe in the third quarter when they went on a little bit of run and we answered right back to tie the game up."
Adding to the upset bid was Strom and Mahacek, who played well above their season averages to give the Buccaneers a lift on the biggest stage.
"It was so awesome to see guys like Adam and Mason play so well in such a big game," said Constant. "Adam had been struggling a little bit to play with confidence, so we were telling him at practice to just keep attacking because he's one of our biggest weapons in the post. We believed in him, so to see him get after it and score pretty consistently against that big kid from Muskegon was really cool.
"Mason is probably one of our best on-ball defenders, so I wasn't surprised to see him slow down that Jarvis (Walker) kid. That was his one job on defense tonight, and I thought he did great. Then, he added some early offense for us, too. So, he really played a great game and I was really happy to see both of those guys step up in a big game like that."
For Strom, the loss will serve as a motivational tool heading into the offseason.
"Hopefully, next year the result can be different," he said. "We're going to use this game as motivation for the next group of guys, and hopefully, it will be different.
"I love these guys. The last four months, this was all that we did. (Basketball) has been our whole life. It is sad to see the seniors go, but we got next year."