By Nate Thompson
But a player who has been there before – Benton Harbor’s Roy Anderson – spoiled the Lakers’ bid to advance to Michigan State’s Breslin Center with some final-second heroics.
Anderson, who was a reserve guard on the Tigers’ state runner-up squad in 2014, drove the lane and converted a tough layup in traffic with 5.1 seconds left, giving Benton Harbor a stunning 46-44 victory over Spring Lake in a thrilling Class B state quarterfinal contest on Tuesday at Caledonia High School.
Benton Harbor (22-3 overall) will play on Friday against New Haven, which defeated Detroit Osborn in another Tuesday quarterfinal.
It was a tale of two halves for Anderson and Benton Harbor, which trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half, thanks to outstanding half-court defense by the Lakers.
But Benton Harbor’s bread and butter – its relentless full-court pressure defense – changed the momentum.
“Their pressure got to us,” said Spring Lake Coach Bill Core admitted after the game. “No matter how much tape you watch, no matter how much you practice and put six guys on defense, it’s hard to simulate that pressure.
“The room for error is pretty small when you face that kind of pressure,” he added. “The worst part is, when they get a turnover, it’s usually an easy basket because it’s a backcourt turnover.”
Benton Harbor started to come to life near the end of the first half, trimming a 19-7 deficit to a 20-13 score at the break.
“We just told the kids that they needed to calm down,” said Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling. “They seemed nervous early on and they were playing tight. Once they relaxed, we were fine.”
Spring Lake received great early production from 6-foot-8 junior center Sam Johnson, who scored 10 of his team-high 14 points in the opening half.
But Core felt the Tigers extended their pressure out further in the second half, and Tigers’ freshman center Carlos Johnson played Johnson more physical as well.
The Tigers kept chipping away in the third, with the Lakers’ offense out-of-sorts and Anderson heating up with 10 points in the third.
Jack VanWingen’s pull-up jumper from the baseline gave the Lakers a 35-31 lead entering the fourth, but the Tigers roared out of the gates in the final quarter, turning in a 9-0 spurt to take their first lead of the game, 36-35, with 6:51 to play.
Benton Harbor stretched its advantage to 40-35, but the Lakers fought back. Spring Lake’s Cameron Ball made four-straight free throws, then a putback by VanWingen gave Spring Lake a 43-42 advantage with under 1:30 left.
The Tigers grabbed the lead again, 44-43, after Johnson sank two free throws with one minute left. Then Ball went to the free throw line with 56.8 left to play after he was hacked driving up the sideline.
Ball, the Lakers’ top shooter at the foul line, calmly sank his first attempt, but his second rimmed out.
That left the game tied 44-44.
“That second free throw is going to (tick) me off,” Ball said. “I think I just rushed it. I usually take more breaths and on that one, I didn’t take the third one. I just wanted to make it.”
Benton Harbor ran down the clock, then called time out. Coach Sterling said there was no doubt that he wanted the ball in Anderson’s hands at that point, and the senior sank the winning shot with five seconds left.
“He had some uncharacteristic turnovers in the first half, and he made up for it when we needed it the most,” Sterling said about Anderson.
The Lakers had a final chance after Anderson’s bucket when VanWingen got a 3-poont attempt off, but it fell shot short and clanked off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Core and the Lakers wrapped up their tremendous season with a 19-7 record. The veteran coach said the magnitude of the heartbreaking setback may not hit him until later.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline kicking in to finish my job as a coach,” Core said. “But it will probably settle in later just how close this game was, and how close we were to getting to the promised land at the Breslin.
“I told the kids, to a man, when you end your career or your season, if you didn’t leave it all on the court, you’ll look at yourself in the mirror and realize it. That’s not the case, because they know they left it all on the court.”