COOPERSVILLE — The Muskegon and Reeths-Puffer boys basketball teams met twice during the regular season, with Muskegon taking comfortable wins both times.
But as the old saying goes, it’s hard to beat a good team three times.
Reeths-Puffer gave Muskegon a serious run in a Division 1 district championship game on Friday night, but the Big Reds held on for a 51-47 win at Coopersville High School.
“I’ll go to war with these guys any day because they’re tough, they’re resilient,” Muskegon Coach Keith Guy said about his team. “I had no doubt in my mind that we could pull it off because of the work we put in every day. I’m extremely proud of them.
“Hats off to (Reeths-Puffer), they had a good game plan. They played well and it came down to the end.”
Reeths-Puffer Coach Nate Aardema said he’s proud of the way his team fought against the state-ranked Big Reds.
“Our kids really bought into ‘us’ tonight,” Aardema said. “We said ‘OK, we’re going to go toe-to-toe.’ And that’s what we did.
“I’m incredibly proud of them. We’ve been asking them since November, believe in yourselves, believe in each other, buy in, battle.
“We’ve grown throughout the year in our belief, we’ve grown throughout the year in our ability to play together. We gave them all they wanted and then some, I think. There’s so much to be proud of.”
Leading by a point with around 3:30 to play, Muskegon focused on taking care of the ball and running the clock.
The strategy worked, as the Big Reds ran the clock down to 40 seconds before the Rockets sent them to the free throw line.
Muskegon then went 4-for-5 at the line down the stretch to seal the win.
“They were in the bonus, and what I didn’t want to do was give them the ball back and they get a foul and take the lead,” Guy said. “I am an advocate for the shot clock, I will say that. But the shot clock is not here, so I’m going to coach to the rules.”
Aardema also explained his logic in that late situation.
“In my mind, it was if we can force a turnover or they get tired of holding it and take a quick shot, we’re going to be down one with the ball and all the pressure on them,” the R-P coach said. “To their credit, they stayed poised, they held it and made enough free throws.”
Muskegon has some lofty goals this season, with their eyes on a state championship, but the Big Reds still appreciate the district title.
“We always talk about scholarships and championships,” senior Jordan Briggs said. “We just knocked down one with the district and we’re right back to it on Monday for the regionals. We want to keep going, keep winning games and make it to the Breslin.”
“Any time we can get a trophy and practice tomorrow, we’re blessed,” Guy said. “I’m happy I get to spend another couple of days, at least, with these guys. It’s the best group of guys. It means a lot. We don’t take any trophy presentations or any medals for granted.”
Muskegon led 14-11 at the end of the first quarter. Travis Ambrose led all scorers with six points for R-P, while five different Big Reds found the net.
Reeths-Puffer led 22-20 with 3:30 left in the second quarter, but Muskegon closed the half on a 13-3 run to lead 33-25 at halftime. Justin Watson hit three three-pointers in the second quarter for Muskegon.
Reeths-Puffer rallied in the third quarter to even the score at 42-42 headed into the fourth. Ambrose scored 11 points in the third for the Rockets.
The Rockets scored first in the fourth quarter to go up by two points, but Muskegon responded with a 5-0 run to lead 47-44 and stayed on top the rest of the way.
With the lead at 47-46 with around 3:30 left, Muskegon shifted to its strategy of holding onto the ball. Reeths-Puffer tried to force a steal before eventually sending Muskegon to the free-throw line with 40 seconds left.
David Day III hit two free throws to make it 49-46. Both teams then missed the front end of a one-and-one chance, giving Reeths-Puffer the ball with a chance to tie.
Ambrose was fouled with 2.4 seconds left and made the first free throw. He intentionally missed the second to try to get a rebound, but Muskegon got the ball and Day hit two more free throws to ice the game.
Day led Muskegon with 12 points, including seven in the fourth quarter. Briggs and Watson each had nine for the Big Reds. Stanley Cunningham added six and James Martin had five.
Ambrose led all scorers with 25 points for R-P. Jaxson Whitaker and Tayte Vanderleest added six points apiece and freshman Marvin Moore had five.
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