By Noah Genson
MUSKEGON – What a ride it has been for Reeths-Puffer boys basketball coach Lance Johnson.
After going winless in his first season at the helm in 2015-16, then improving to three wins and nine wins over the next two seasons, he suddenly has his Rockets playing high-caliber basketball with the best teams around.
That was more than clear on Tuesday night, when the upstart Rockets, who feature mostly underclassmen in their lineup, stunned the powerful Muskegon Big Reds 63-59 in overtime at Redmond-Potter Gymnasium.
Despite their youth, the Rockets maintained their composure under pressure to pull off the upset. They trailed by nine points early in the fourth quarter, but fought back to force OT. Then they calmly sank 11 of 13 free throws in the extra session to seal the big win.
The victory gave the Rockets a 10-1 overall record this season, and left them on top of the O-K Black Conference with a 4-0 mark.
“When I first came here, our goal was to get more kids playing, and that’s what we’ve done,” Johnson said in the excitement following the upset victory. “We’ve got a lot of kids that put time in during the offseason, and it’s certainly showing now.”
The game started out slowly. Nobody scored for more than three minutes, before Muskegon’s De’airrus Ware finally drove to the bucket for a layup.
Reeths-Puffer answered with a 12-4 run, but the Big Reds clawed back. Lamar Lee hit a buzzer-beating bucket for Muskegon at the close of the first quarter, and Reeths-Puffer led 12-9.
The contest remained pretty quiet in the second quarter, and the Rockets clung to a 23-22 edge at the break.
“We’re a team that likes to run a lot of sets, and with their athletes they were able to slow us up a little bit in the half court,” Johnson said about the Big Reds’ defense.
Vern Nash took control in the third quarter for the Big Reds, connecting for 10 of his 24 points, and Muskegon pulled ahead 37-33 at the third buzzer.
Muskegon went up by nine, 42-33, early in the fourth, and threatened to pull away. But the Rockets responded with a 10-2 run and pulled within 44-43 with four minutes left in regulation.
The Big Reds had a 50-48 lead with two minutes remaining when R-P guard Emcee Williams slashed to the bucket for a layup and knotted the score with a minute left.
The Big Reds held the ball to set up for the winning basket as the clock ran down, but two shots, from Nash and Billie Roberts, missed the mark and the game headed to overtime.
Both teams started the extra session slowly. But Reeths-Puffer kept going to the line, and kept hitting the mark when it mattered the most.
Guard Kaleb Mitchelson made a pair of three throws, then teammate Josh Jordan hit a layup and a free throw, giving the Rockets a 59-54 lead with 59 seconds remaining.
A triple by the Big Reds’ guard Eonte Tornes made it a 62-59 game with nine seconds left, then a Reeths-Puffer turnover, caused by a bobbled inbounds pass that went out of bounds, gave Muskegon one last shot with 7.5 seconds left.
Ware was able to get a clean look at a three but missed off the back of the rim, and the Rockets held on for the victory.
Free throw shooting was crucial for the Rockets throughout the contest. They nailed 22 of 25 from the line, which delighted Coach Johnson.
“Early in the year we were actually shooting below 50 percent from the line, so to see our guys improving is great to see as the season goes on,” he said.
Williams led the Rockets with 17 points, including seven points from the line in overtime, while Carter Fulton chipped in with 15.
While Muskegon will now have to fight to retain its O-K Black Conference title, its chances will be greatly bolstered next week when standout Jarvis Walker, a transfer from Mona Shores, can join the active roster.
“He’ll give us another ball-handler and another scorer to add to this group of guys,” said Muskegon Coach Keith Guy. “He’s a kid who knows the game and will really be able to do a lot for us.”
Nash led all scorers with 24 points while Ware added 12 points and six rebounds for the Big Reds.
Muskegon fell to 4-3 overall and 3-1 in O-K Black play.