PARK TWP. – Strong defense and free throw shooting are often a recipe for success when tournament time hits in March, and that proved to be the case for the Muskegon boys basketball team on Monday night.

The Big Reds built a big early lead, withstood an East Kentwood rally, then sank more than two dozen free throws in the fourth quarter to claim a 68-48 win in a Division 1 regional semifinal game at West Ottawa High School.

Muskegon led by as many as 24 points in the first half, but East Kentwood battled back to within five early in the fourth quarter. The Big Reds survived the scare and secured the win by downing a pretty amazing 25 free throws in the final eight minutes.

Muskegon made just two field goals in the second half but scored 31 points at the foul stripe.

Muskegon’s Anthony Sydnor attempts one of many free throws that the Big Reds took on Monday. Photo/Tyler Lirones

Muskegon, now 23-3 on the season, advances to face Hudsonville (18-7) in the regional finals on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at West Ottawa. The winner of that game will advance to the state quarterfinals.

“To be a complete basketball team and be a championship basketball team you have to make free throws,” said Muskegon Coach Keith Guy. “It sealed the game.”

“You can’t win games without knocking down free throws toward the end,” senior Jordan Briggs added. “They were going on a run and could have come back if we weren’t making our free throws. That was really big for us.”

The Big Reds’ defense was a key in opening up a large early lead. Through 13 minutes of game action, Muskegon allowed just five East Kentwood points and built a 29-5 lead.

Muskegon’s Jordan Briggs (2) drives toward the hoop. Photo/Tyler Lirones

“We knew that they like to drive and we were just all in the gaps, taking charges,” senior Anthony Sydnor said. “I think (David Day) took like three charges. He’s a great defender, he’s hard-nosed. He’s a hard person to get by in practice. It translates to the game.”

Muskegon led 14-4 after one quarter, ending the frame on a 12-1 run after briefly trailing 3-2. Sydnor led the way with six points.

A 15-1 run to start the second quarter pushed the lead out to 29-5, the Big Reds’ largest of the game. Muskegon led 31-12 at halftime, paced by Sydnor and Day with eight points apiece.

East Kentwood dominated the third quarter, outscoring Muskegon 19-6 to pull within 37-31. Muskegon did not make a field goal in the quarter, scoring all six of its points at the line.

Sydnor gets ready to unleash a shot. Photo/Tyler Lirones

“I told our guys that they were going to come out like madmen in the third quarter — and they did,” Coach Guy said. “I don’t think we answered the bell until later into the quarter to kind of hold them off a little bit.”

East Kentwood shaved the lead to 41-36 with 7:09 to play in the fourth quarter, but Muskegon responded. A 7-1 run, which included threes from Sydnor and Briggs — Muskegon’s only field goals of the second half — pushed the lead back to 11.

A Falcon triple made the score 48-40 with 4:35 to play, but Muskegon closed out the game with a 20-8 run which features lots of successful free throws.

Sydnor led Muskegon with 18 points, followed by Day and Briggs with 13 apiece.

TJ Davis and M’Khi Guy each tossed in six points for the Big Reds.