Lakers earn split against top teams in North
GVL / Robert Mathews
The Fieldhouse Arena was as loud as it’s been all season. The band was bringing the funk, Louie the Laker was sporting a vintage blazer, and the No. 23 team was in the house to battle for first place.
The Grand Valley State University men’s basketball team trailed Lake Superior State University 15-5 early, but the home fans were back on their feet as GVSU freshman forward Trevin Alexander quickly ended an LSSU fast break with an emphatic block less than seven minutes into the game.
LSSU sophomore forward Devin Daly returned the favor 64 seconds later on a similar looking play, which seemed to ignite a war of words, then the basketball somehow took a blooper-type bounce, hit a player in the face and “Throwback Thursday” quickly turned into “throw-down Thursday.”
A scuffle broke out right on the west end of the court as a few players started pushing and shoving, although the squabble was held in check by coaches and referees. No punches were thrown, but the tone was set — and the crowd loved it.
“It was a very intense game even before that,” GVSU head coach Ric Wesley said. “The intensity certainly didn’t go down after that incident. It’s hard for me to say that’s what made us play better, but a lot of games in our league are very rough and tough, and you have to match that.”
GVSU sophomore guard Ernijs Ansons was given a technical foul. Starting forward Chaz Rollins and freshman guard Harold Wiggins were ejected. An LSSU player was also ejected.
The visiting team was given two techs, however, which gave GVSU the ball, some free throws and some much needed momentum. It seemed to be a unifying moment for the home team.
“We came out flat, then as that little scuffle happened, it got us all together,” fifth-year senior point guard Rob Woodson said. “A little instigating gave us a little fire. We already knew they were going to come in here and get into a good fight.”
It was a back-and-forth battle between the teams for the remainder of the half, but LSSU found a way to rally late and take a 39-32 lead into the break.
GVSU needed one of its leaders to step up, and junior guard Ryan Sabin more than stepped up.
He took over the game.
Sabin scored 19 points in the second half and finished the contest with a career-high 28 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go with three rebounds. He was also 10-of-10 at the free-throw line, which was important as the teams combined to commit 53 personal fouls in the highly contested bout.
“We needed to score,” Sabin said. “My teammates were finding me with great passes. I wouldn’t have those shots if they didn’t deliver the ball. They were on point, the execution on our plays was great — they got it to me and I just put the shots in. The execution was great.”
Sophomore guard Darren Kapustka was also feeling comfortable at the charity stripe. He connected on all four of his attempts, one of which proved to be the game winner.
It was the fourth time this season he has come off the bench to hit a game-winning shot in the final minute.
“That’s why you play the game right there,” Sabin said. “It was a phenomenal win.”
Alexander and junior forward Darren Washington may have played their best basketball of the season and were especially effective as a duo in the low post. Both players scored 11 points and combined to rack up 11 boards, six steals and five blocks. GVSU’s reserves outscored LSSU’s bench 31-4.
The Lakers managed to knock one GLIAC North rival out of first place but weren’t able to duplicate the effort two days later against Northwood University in Midland, Mich.
The GVSU starters tallied a 9-8-7-6-5 scoring output in the first half and went into the break tied at 37 apiece, but the team only got two points from its bench in the initial stanza. Kapustka, who suffered a head injury in the final seconds against LSSU, did not play.
Wesley said his team came out flat to start both halves.
“We didn’t play very well in the first three or four minutes of the game or the first three or four minutes of the second half,” he said. “We had them disoriented, but we did not take advantage of that, we came back and missed some layups.”
The stat line showed it was a close game, but the Timberwolves simply made more shots down the stretch.
The Lakers, who have played five of their last six games on the road, once again struggled to hit shots away from the Fieldhouse Arena. They combined to shoot 24-of-63 from the field and just 3-of-17 from beyond the arc.
Northwood’s free-throw shooters hit the pivotal shots in the final minute this time around, as GVSU eventually fell 71-67 and dropped back into a fifth-place tie in the North Division standings.
“We could have shot a bit better from the three, but we fought hard,” said Woodson, who finished with a game-high 17 points. “Our execution was pretty good, but our defense wasn’t at its best and we didn’t knock down the shots that we usually hit.
“We just have to make sure we come to play even harder. We’re still okay, we just have to make sure we keep fighting hard.”
It’s going to be a fight all the way to the top of the conference, but as long as GVSU is able to roll with the punches, it should be one of the last teams standing when the regular season comes to a close.
The Lakers will tip off next in part one of “Battle of the Valleys” at Saginaw Valley State University on Thursday at 8 p.m. before taking on Wayne State University at home Saturday at 3 p.m.