By Tom Westerholm

COOPERSVILLE – Before every game, Muskegon boys basketball coach Keith Guy makes it a habit to call his team over one by one and tap each player on the chest with both fists.

Guy’s goal is to check each player’s heart and make sure his head is ready for the contest. On Wednesday, before Muskegon took on Grand Rapids Union in its District 10 semifinal regional game, freshman wing James Martin surprised Guy. 

“I’m ready,” Martin told his head coach. 

“He hadn’t done that before,” Guy said. “He didn’t lie. He was ready to play.”

Martin was a crucial part of Muskegon’s second-half push, as the Big Reds pulled away for a massive 72-38 victory over the second-place team in the OK-Green. Martin scored 14 second-half points and 18 overall, including a one-hand slam in transition as the clock wound down that brought his teammates to their feet. 

“We kind of wanted to see one to top off the night,” senior guard Jordan Briggs said with a smile.

Photo courtesy of LSJ photographer Craig Smith

The Big Reds didn’t dominate throughout Wednesday’s game. Despite holding Union scoreless for the first five minutes and allowing just 12 first-half points, Muskegon started slow in the first two quarters – a performance Guy called “the worst half of basketball we’ve played.”

The second half didn’t start much better. After Anthony Sydnor III beat a defender and scored at the rim, Union senior Kyale Lockridge buried 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, cutting the lead to six. Muskegon senior Jordan Briggs hit a triple, and Martin scored a put-back, but Union answered each time and kept the lead at single digits for the first three minutes of the quarter. 

But Briggs poked away a steal and scored a layup. Shortly afterward, he found Martin in transition again. On the next possession, Martin scored at the rim, and the Muskegon lead swelled to 35-22. Union called timeout, but the damage was done – the short burst sparked a 13-0 run to end the quarter, which turned into a 21-0 run in the first two minutes of the fourth when Briggs hit two more 3-pointers and Martin leaked out in transition for another layup. 

“We were rolling,” Sydnor III said. “We hit a lot of 3s, … and we were just rolling. When we hit threes, we’re happy.”

The Big Reds cruised the rest of the fourth quarter, and with 3:31 remaining, Guy emptied his bench leading 62-33. 

“I don’t know if we were tight [in the first half], I don’t know, but it wasn’t us,” Guy said. “I didn’t recognize the team that showed up. The second half, I do recognize that team.”

Photo courtesy of LSJ photographer Craig Smith

The Big Reds finished with a balanced scoring attack, which included 20 points from Briggs, 14 from Sydnor III and nine from David Day III in addition to Martin’s 18. Briggs got hot in the second half, but he enjoyed watching the final few minutes as a spectator.

“James played great tonight. He really stepped up big for us,” Briggs said. “In those moments, watching the younger guys – because they practice just as hard as us, they do the same things we do – so letting them get in and get their run, it’s fun for us to watch them. They are going to be the future of the program when we’re gone.”

Sydnor III said Muskegon’s versatility makes offense “easy.”

“Once they start keying in on our shooters, we got shooters everywhere, it’s easier to get to our strong hand and finish,” Sydnor III said. “If they come in, we kick it to a shooter. So no one can really guard us. We can do everything – play outside in, inside out, everything.”

But the Big Reds were particularly good defensively in the second half – forcing Union to speed the game up and turn the ball over. Muskegon defenders stepped in to take a number of charges, which frustrated Union enough to coax a technical foul out of head coach William Wright late in the third quarter. Day knocked down both technical free throws, then buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to push Muskegon’s lead to 42-22. 

“It makes the game easier for us when our pressure on defense is high,” Day said. “We’re playing together as a team on defense, everybody helping one another, and it just frustrates the opponents because you see 10 eyes when you get the ball.”

Sydnor noted that Muskegon’s patented trapping defense also allows the Big Reds to get transition opportunities.

“And we talk,” he added. “We just like to frustrate teams. It makes it fun, and we play better. And they play worse, obviously.”

With the victory, Muskegon clinched a berth in the district finals on Friday at 7 p.m., where it will take on Reeths-Puffer after the Rockets beat Coopersville in overtime on Wednesday. The winner will advance to the regional semifinals on March 13. 

Guy believes his team is rounding into shape at the right time.

“I think we’re starting to get it,” he said. “Tonight helped us. Just getting that first one out of the way against a good team. [Union] is second in our conference. To beat them like we did says a lot. I think the sky is the limit as long as we come out focused.”