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D2 SEMIS: Hudsonville Unity Christian runs past Ludington, makes first championship game since 1973

D2 SEMIS: Hudsonville Unity Christian runs past Ludington, makes first championship game since 1973
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Mar 15, 7:40pm

EAST LANSING — Maybe there’s truth to the old adage that defense and a running game will win you championships, even if it’s misapplied to basketball.

Hudsonville Unity Christian imposed its will defensively on Friday’s Division 2 semifinal game, and got out and ran, routing Ludington 69-30 to earn a spot in Saturday’s championship game.

The Crusaders (25-2), who finished as runners-up in 1963 and 1973, will face the state’s pre-eminent championship basketball program, River Rouge (23-2), in Saturday’s title contest at 6:46 p.m. The Panthers beat Harper Woods Chandler Park Academy 72-66 in overtime in Friday's other D2 semifinal.

River Rouge has won its last eight games since its last loss, a 10-point setback against the defending Class B champ Benton Harbor on Feb. 16, but the Crusaders are on an even bigger roll, winning their last 20 games since a two-point loss to Grand Rapids South Christian on Dec. 21. In their playoff push, they’ve not only avenged that South Christian loss with a win in quarterfinals, but knocked off one of the presumptive favorites in Benton Harbor in the regional final.

“We talked about flying under the radar, and we’ve kind of done that all year long. And that’s been a good thing,” Unity Christian coach Scott Soodsma said. “That’s fine with us. I think really have turned it up a notch, and I think these kids are just winners. They want to win, and they’re getting close to the end of their careers, and I think they wanted to go out champions. They just, actually on their own, decided ‘We’re going to turn it up a notch.’”

Several of the Crusaders have already tasted the joys of a championship this year.

While the basketball program hasn’t been to the finals since 1973, making it to title games has become sort of old hat for the Crusaders: The boys soccer and football teams both won championships in the fall, and the basketball roster is liberally sprinkled with players who have experience on the biggest stage.

“I definitely think it does (carry over),” T.J. VanKoevering said. “I played in the football state championship game, and coming out here, it’s not nearly as nerve-wracking — I mean, it’s still nerve-wracking, but you have some experience in big situations like this, so I think it’s helpful for both the people who were on the soccer team, and the football team.”

Just like the football team, the Crusaders wanted to establish the run in Friday’s game.

“It was a fun one tonight. I thought we really came out with a lot of intensity,” Soodsma said. “I thought we really got after them right off the bat, and we got our running game going, which I thought was really crucial. We like to get up and down the floor, and these guys like to get after it.”

They got after it on defense, as well.

The Crusaders held Ludington (14-11) to 14 percent shooting in the first quarter, 18 percent in the third, and 33 percent for the game, forcing 24 turnovers.

“I think I knew it would take quite a great effort tonight to beat that Unity Christian team. From watching them on film, I’ve been really impressed. I mean, they do things the right way. We haven’t seen a team that runs the ball in transition like they do. Offensively, we haven’t seen a team that attacks the offensive glass like they do. And we haven’t seen a team that physically pressures the basketball, and takes you out of your offense like that basketball team did tonight.

Just kudos to that basketball team. What an absolute great game they played tonight,” Ludington coach Thad Shank said.

“I think their length and their physicality. I mean, our offense — there was stuff we felt was open when we went in at halftime, but our offense was being played so far away from the basket, and so far off the 3-point line, that we had a heck of a time taking advantage of any of those things. …

“When you’re a team that can really pressure the ball like they do, you don’t really even have to play great defense behind that ball pressure, because it causes so much havoc. Now, they’re great on the ball, and great behind the pressure on top of it. And we just had a tough, tough time handling that pressure defense.”

Unity Christian turned those turnovers into 29 points, and got 12 points on the fast break.

Noah Wiswary led Unity Christian with 17 points, while TJ VanKoevering had eight, and Chandler Collins and Zac Velthouse both had seven.

They also had 18 assists on 29 made field goals.

“We just want to win, that’s all,” Wiswary said. “We want to get a state championship, so any way we can win — and sharing the ball is the best way we can do that, so that’s what we do.”

Joshua Laman — who beat the buzzer with a  3 to knock off River Rouge in the 2017 semifinals at Breslin — had nine points to lead Ludington.

“It’s a dream come true,” Laman said. “I didn’t think two years ago I’d be able to come back, but this team, and coach Shank did a great job this year getting us ready, and we really came together at the end.”

The Orioles started the season 2-5, then ripped off six straight wins to go over the .500 mark, before losing four straight and five of their last six in the regular season to head to districts at 9-10.

“Going into the postseason 9-10 isn’t easy, because you’ve got a bunch of people looking at you in the first game of districts, thinking you don’t have a chance,” Sam Bandstra said. “We shocked some people when we were playing the intense defense that we were playing, really moving the ball, and really playing together as a team. We really came together at the right time.”

Shank was just as impressed with his team’s postseason resurrection.

“When things don’t go your way, like they did not go our way early in the season, there’s a lot of white noise out there, and a lot of people who know why things aren’t going well. And these kids heard all those things from people on the outside, and away from the basketball program, yet each and every day, they came into the gym, and believed what their coaching staff was telling them,” Shank said. “They just continued to fight and claw, and I couldn’t be any more proud of this group of kids because of that fact.”