By Mitch Ashcraft

WHITEHALL – The league-leading Whitehall boys basketball team never expected to skate through the West Michigan Conference schedule without a serious challenge.

And the Vikings certainly got one on Thursday night from a determined North Muskegon squad.

Whitehall led by 12 points at halftime, and seemed well on its way to an easy conference victory. But the Norse rushed back in the second half and forced overtime with a 3-pointer from Riley Fairfield with six seconds left in regulation.

Brandon Rake saved the day in OT for the Vikings, taking a feed from Lucas Schumm and hitting a layup as time expired to give Whitehall a thrilling 45-43 victory on its home court.

Whitehall improved to 12-2 on the season and 11-0 in the West Michigan Conference.

Rake said he had been looking for opportunities to score in the paint all night, but North Muskegon’s tight zone defense made it difficult to work the ball inside.

“But with the game on the line we thought we might as well pull it now,” said Rake, 6-5 junior post player who finished with 14 points.

Whitehall Coach Nate Aardema said the final play was designed to get the ball inside to Rake, but it didn’t go as planned.

“We wanted to get it to Brandon,” he said. “The idea was to run Luc (Schumm) through the zone to open up the middle for Brandon, but he was not open. So Luc set it back up at the top and improvised a little bit. That’s where, thank goodness, they made the play and were able to finish it.”

The Vikings won’t have the opportunity to enjoy their victory for long. Their next big challenge comes on Tuesday, when they host second-place Montague in another key conference matchup.

The Vikings edged Montague earlier this season, 55-52. They could clinch at least a share of the conference title with a victory, but Montague is nipping at their heels with only one league loss.

“There’s a little more at stake this time around,” said Aardema. “(The players) just went through a battle and I got to figure out a way to prepare them for Montague.”

Whitehall played a strong first half against North Muskegon.

Senior Drew Young scored seven of his 11 points in the first quarter, helping Whitehall grab a 15-8 lead at the first buzzer.

Whitehall’s defense was big in the second quarter, holding the Norsemen without a field goal for the first four minutes. Young’s bucket in the closing seconds of the quarter gave the Vikings a 24-12 lead at halftime.

But North Muskegon woke up in the third quarter, going on an 11-0 run in the first 2:06 to trim their deficit to one point.

North Muskegon guard TJ McKenzie, who scored all nine of his points in the third, drained a triple with one minute remaining in the quarter to give the Norse a 31-28 lead.

North Muskegon led 34-32 with 3:45 left in the fourth quarter when Jack MacArthur nailed a 3- pointer to put Whitehall back on top by one.

Whitehall regained possession with 3:10 to go and held the ball at the top of the key for more than two minutes, forcing the Norse to foul.

The Vikings missed a couple of free throws before Schumm knocked down two from the line with 29 seconds left, giving Whitehall a 37-34 lead.

Fairfield followed with his dramatic 3-pointer with six seconds left to tie the score and force overtime.

Despite the great comeback, the Norse fell short in the extra session, and dropped to 9-6 overall and 7-4 in the conference.

The close game was no surprise to North Muskegon Coach Chuck Rypstra. The third-year coach has faced the Vikings six times in his career and has a 3-3 record in those matchups.

Three of those games have gone into overtime, and the margin of victory for either side has never been greater than six, according to Rypstra.

“This is what it always is,” Rypstra said. “Every time we play this team we know it’s going to be a battle. Good high school basketball is what it is.”

North Muskegon, a preseason conference favorite, is now out of the league race, and will focus on preparing for the upcoming Class C districts.

“We need to gain consistency,” Rypstra said. “Our problem is we play some really good basketball – like you look at us and say whoa – but then you also see the lows, which were evident in the first half tonight. We are still 9-6, which is pretty good with the teams we play.”

Schumm finished the night with 17 points for Whitehall, while Fairfield led the Norsemen with 14.