By Steve Gunn

WHITEHALL – A lot of people assumed that the Division 2 boys district basketball tournament hosted by Whitehall High School would come down to a showdown between Whitehall and Orchard View.

After all, Whitehall won the West Michigan Conference title while OV was a co-champion of the Lakes 8 Conference.

Callum Saxe goes in for a Spring Lake layup. Photo/Leo Valdez

But people who follow area high school basketball know better than to count out Spring Lake, under wily veteran coach Bill Core. The Lakers struggled throughout the regular season, finishing with a 5-10 record, but they were obviously ready for tournament time.

Spring Lake junior Kaden George poured in 33 points, including 13 from the free throw line in the crucial fourth quarter, to lead the Lakers to a stunning 54-43 win over Whitehall on Saturday afternoon in the D2 district title game on the Vikings’ home court.

Spring Lake now advances to play Coopersville in the first round of regionals on Tuesday. Whitehall finished the season with a 13-4 record.

The Lakers were lucky in one respect, because they were supposed to play Orchard View in a Thursday semifinal game that was canceled when the Cardinals forfeited due to COVID. But they earned the championship the old-fashioned way, by besting a very good opponent.

Dayton Cole pulls down a rebound for Whitehall in front of No. 42 Porter Sanders. Photo/Leo Valdez

“What makes today so sweet is that our conference is so good,” Core said after the game. “We were 4-10 in our league, we had tough losses, night in and night out, but we just knew we were going to get better. We obviously didn’t get to the finals the way we wanted to, but when we got here we took care of business.

“We’ve had some tough times, so to beat a very good Whitehall team on their own court, I’m extra proud of these guys.”

George said he wasn’t at all surprised that his team upset the field and won the district title, saying that was the plan all along.

“The whole season we’ve been talking about it, how there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and this is it,” said George, who went pointless in the first quarter before going on his scoring spree. “We played a tough schedule to set us up for this. We were overlooked and we used that to our advantage.”

George said it was tough last season to miss the chance to win a district title. The Lakers were supposed to play Fruitport in the title game, but then the rest of the season was cancelled due to COVID, and nobody took home a trophy.

“That hurt, it really did, then to win it this year is amazing,” he said.

Spring Lake had to rally to win the championship after a rough first quarter. Whitehall big man Dayton Cole scored five points and Addison Bluhm added four, helping Whitehall grab an 11-4 lead at the first buzzer.

But George and the Lakers played themselves back into the contest in the second quarter. George tossed in 12 points, including a pair of three-pointers and four free throws, and Spring Lake only trailed 23-20 at halftime.

The Lakers opened the third quarter with a 7-2 run, fueled a three-pointer and a layup from Evan McDermott, and Spring Lake had its first lead, 27-25, with 5:37 left in the quarter.

Whitehall jumped ahead 30-27, then George had a steal and layup with 3:14 left, followed by another layup 23 seconds later, and the Lakers led 31-30. Whitehall added a free throw, and the score was knotted up 31-31 headed into the fourth quarter.

Whitehall’s Casey Lownds nailed a triple to start the fourth, then Spring Lake got a pair of layups from Porter Saunders to take a 35-34 lead. The Vikings took another lead with a pair of free throws, but it was all Lakers after that.

George nailed a short jumper with 5:26 left, sparking a  decisive 19-7 run for Spring Lake over the rest of the game. The Lakers went into a slow-down offense over the last three minutes after taking a five-point lead, and Whitehall was forced to foul repeatedly as the clock started to run down.

George took full advantage, nailing 13 of 14 free throw attempts down the stretch to seal the win. He finished with 15 points in the fourth quarter.

“Not at all,” George said, when asked if he was nervous going to the line so much with the season on the line. “Those are shots I work on every day throughout the week. I’ve got to get in my free throws for these moments. There were no butterflies at all. I was ready for this moment.”

Sam Sheridan finished with nine points for Spring Lake.

Dayton Cole led Whitehall with 20 points. Andrew Durbin added eight points and Bluhm finished with seven.

“They play a tremendous schedule,” said Whitehall Coach Nate Aardema about Spring Lake. “The schools in their league are battle-tested, so it was no surprise at all that they were ready to play. There was a two-minute stretch there where we took too many quick shots, had a turnover or two, then all of the sudden we’re playing catch up. I thought it was an evenly played game, then they stretched it out there at the end by making some shots.”