By Steve Gunn
The Orioles and Panthers played an annual regular-season game against each other for years, between 1953 and 1985.
River Rouge, a traditional state basketball power located in the metro Detroit area, dominated the series 23-2, according to the Ludington Daily News. That included 1971, when the Panthers beat the Orioles in the regular season (69-63) and the Class B state semifinals (77-47).
That was the last time Ludington played in the state Final Four. The long drought will end on Friday, when the Orioles return to the Class B semifinals to again meet River Rouge.
The game is set for 7:50 p.m. at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center. The winner will face the survivor of the other semifinal contest – which pits Benton Harbor (22-3) against New Haven (25-1) – in Saturday’s state championship game.
Ludington, 24-2 on the season, advanced to the semifinals with an impressive 69-43 victory on Tuesday over Lake Fenton in the state quarterfinals at Mount Pleasant High School.
The Orioles took control of the game early by shooting the lights out of the gym. They converted 17 of 23 shots from the floor in the first half and led 41-19 at halftime.
The Orioles cooled off a bit in the second half, but kept Lake Fenton from clawing back into the contest.
“I would say that first half was our best half of the season, from an offensive standpoint,” said veteran Ludington Coach Thad Shank. “We shot the ball really well. You can talk about x’s and o’s and game plans, but if you can shoot the ball really well in March, that will take you a long way.”
The Orioles had a great regular season, winning all but two games and claiming a share of the Lakes 8 Conference championship, but they cooled off a bit toward the end.
They experienced both of their losses in the final two weeks of the regular season, to conference rival Muskegon Heights, and then North Muskegon in the final game on the schedule.
But they caught fire again in the state tournament, cruising to a district championship with wins over Big Rapids (63-49), Manistee (71-33) and Cadillac (51-21) and a regional title by beating Clare (64-45) and Gladstone (63-48).
“We struggled down the final stretch of the season with making shots, and that was a little bit worrisome going into the tournament, but then we found our groove again and started shooting the ball really well.”
The Orioles were considered slight underdogs in the quarterfinals against Lake Fenton, but by the time the game was over, there was no doubt they were the better team.
They created open shots from the paint and perimeter with great ball movement, and their defense created nightmares for Lake Fenton, disrupting passing lanes and forcing turnovers.
Shank said his team seemed calm and focused headed into the big quarterfinal game.
“This group has been pretty focused on re-establishing the tradition of Ludington basketball,” the coach said. “They went out and won the conference and district and regional championships, and I think that put them at least a little bit at ease. They felt like they had done what they set out to do.
“They read the papers and social media, and knew that people were considering them the underdogs (in the quarterfinals), but they just went out and had fun.”
The Orioles have relied all season on a balanced scoring attack. That continued against Lake Fenton, with four players scoring in double-figures – Calvin Hackert (20 points), Sam LaDuke (16), Noah Laman (12) and Josh Laman (11).
For the season, Hackert averages 13.6 points per game, followed by LaDuke (10.7), Noah Laman (8.8) and Josh Laman (7.4).
The Orioles don’t have that standout go-to guy who can be counted on for 20-25 points every game. But Shank thinks team balance, depth and unselfishness more than make up for the lack of a single star.
“I think a team with balanced scoring can get it done,” Shank said. “Everybody likes to have that superstar player, but that’s not the boat we’re in. Who’s to say a few of our kids couldn’t be that type of player if they weren’t so unselfish?”
The Orioles will have their hands full against River Rouge, a 24-1 team that was ranked second in the state in the final Associated Press Class B state poll.
The Panthers have won 14 state championships in their storied history, with the last coming in 1999.
They advanced to the semifinals with an exciting 54-51 win over Williamston in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. Darian Owens-White hit a triple with three seconds left on the clock to give River Rouge the win.
Owens-White, the son of first-year coach Mark White, is the Panthers’ main offensive threat. He proved it when it counted in the quarterfinals, scoring a game-high 25 points, including all 15 of his team’s points in the pivotal fourth quarter.
“Our team is built around him,” Coach White said about his son, according to MLive.com “He’s the catalyst of everything that we do.”
The Panthers, like the Orioles, obviously have multiple scoring threats. Three other players – Cole Kleiver (21 points), Sean Cobb (19) and Sy Barnett (11) – scored in double-figures against Williamston.
“We know on Friday we’re going to play by far the best team we’ve seen this year,” Shank said. “They’re a really battled-tested team. Playing in the Detroit area, and being 24-1 with the schedule they have, says a lot. They beat two of the Class A semifinal teams this year. They are clearly one of the better teams in Michigan.
“At the same time, we have a group of pretty confident kids. I’m not worried about them thinking that they don’t belong there. They compete hard, and they haven’t backed down from anybody all season.
“We’ll just prepare as well as we can and enjoy the experience.”