By Andrew Johnson
KENT CITY – When tournament time rolls around every year, it’s usually Muskegon Heights, a traditional power, that comes out on top in the nail-biter games.
But North Muskegon turned the table on the Tigers Friday night.
Sophomore Riley Fairfield scored five quick points with about a minute left, then junior Erick Bleakley calmly sank two free throws with nine seconds remaining, giving the Norse a thrilling 67-63 victory over Muskegon Heights in the Class C district finals at Kent City High School.
North Muskegon now advances to play Laingsburg Monday in the first round of regionals in Beal City.
“It’s awesome to see these kids celebrate but I’m a little torn because we already have to start preparing to playLaingsburg,” said an excited North Muskegon Coach Chuck Rypstra, a longtime junior varsity coach who captured the district trophy in his first year at the varsity level.
The game was a back-and-forth affair from start to finish.
Muskegon Heights led 15-12 after one quarter, then the Norse rallied to tie the score at 27-27 at halftime.
North Muskegon led by eight points near the end of the third quarter, but Rypstra rested some of his starters and the Tigers responded by forcing six straight turnovers that led to an 11-0 run.
Muskegon Heights led 48-45 after three quarters.
“I had to rest some guys a little bit and our subs have to handle that,” Rypstra said. “We haven’t faced anyone like Heights who pressures like that.”
The outcome was in doubt until the waning moments of the game, when Fairfield rose up to give the Norse an edge they would not surrender.
Fairfield put the Norsemen up by two points with a pair of free throws with just over a minute left in the game. He grabbed a loose ball a few seconds later, drove for a layup, took a foul and made the free throw to extend the lead to five.
Muskegon Heights responded with a 3-pointer from Antwon Jones to cut the margin to two.
North Muskegon missed three free throws, but a loose ball rebound after the third attempt ended up in the hands of Bleakley, who was fouled and sank two free throws with nine seconds left.
Two late shots by the Tigers missed the mark and the celebration began for North Muskegon.
The loss was difficult for the Tigers, who advanced all the way to the Class C state semifinals last year.
“When you have the kind of inexperience that we have, I think the moment may have been overwhelming for some of our young guys,” said Muskegon Heights Coach Dale Stewart. “We didn’t make plays we typically do. I want to tip my hat to Coach Rypstra because he had his kids prepared and they came to play.”
Fairfield led the Norsemen with 18 points while teammate Vernonell Smith added 12. Muskegon Heights was led by Antwon Jones with 23 points and Antonio Jones with 12.