By Nolan Epstein & Kai Raymer
Walnut Grove will meet Pierce City in Wednesday’s semifinals of the Walnut Grove Boys’ Holiday Classic.
Bench depth key for Pierce City
As each minute passed in Friday’s quarterfinal game in the Walnut Grove Boys Holiday Classic, the Pierce City Eagles seemed to just get stronger – turning a 33-28 halftime lead into an eventual 18-point advantage late in the fourth before downing Sparta by a final of 60-50.
In the end, the reason for the second-half separation was rather clear as fourth-seeded Pierce City used its deep bench to rotate players in and out of action all game – keeping legs fresh enough to slowly wear down a talented, but not-as-deep Sparta squad.
“I think the big thing was that we just wore their guards down eventually,” Eagles head coach Matt Street said after the win. “We’ve got a pretty deep bench and that’s kind of one of our strengths. We were able to keep throwing guys at them and just keep wearing them down. I think that kind of caught up to them in the end.”
According to Street, the effort from Pierce City was much improved from its 10-point triumph over Hurley back on Wednesday as the Tigers, the tourney’s No. 13 seed, battled valiantly with the Eagles for 32 minutes.
“I thought tonight we got back to just being us, going out and just working hard,” Street said. “I thought we got outworked by Hurley the other night and I thought we did a much better job of bringing our work level up.”
A total of eight players made noise in the scoring column during Friday’s win for the Eagles, while three scored in double figures, including senior Mason Moreland (13) and juniors Dallas Kleiboeker (13) and Donell Kleiboeker (11).
“We’ve been pretty balanced all year,” added Street. “We’ve had different starting lineups and different leading scorers just about every night. They usually do a really good job of sharing the basketball.”
No. 5 seed Sparta was led by senior standout Landon Davis, who maintained his 20-plus points per game average by pouring in 21 to lead all scorers. Fellow senior Logan Rutherford finished second on the club with 10 points.
Despite the defeat, the Trojans are still ready to take advantage of every opportunity thrown at them as the holiday tourney continues.
“We’ve still got a chance to win two more games in the tournament,” said Sparta head coach Larry Brown. “If you can go into a tournament and win three games, you’d be somewhat happy. Everybody’s goal is to win the tournament, but at this point, we’d be really satisfied if we could come out with three wins.”
Pierce City advances to play top-seeded Walnut Grove on Wednesday in the semifinals, while Sparta moves to the fifth-place bracket to face Pleasant Hope.
Pierce City 60, Sparta 50
Sparta 18 10 9 13 – 50
Pierce City 17 16 15 12 – 60
Sparta – Landon Davis 21, Logan Rutherford 10, Jade Perez 9, Dakota Lafferty 4, Pedro Asebedo 2, Braxton Lilly 2, Collin Teague 2
Pierce City – Mason Moreland 13, Dallas Kleiboeker 13, Donell Kleiboeker 11, Kevin Abramovitz 7, Devin Cox 6, Hunter Tindell 4, Hunter Hatfield 4, Aaron Garner 2
Dominant third quarter lifts Walnut Grove past Pleasant Hope
Walnut Grove’s halftime adjustments against Pleasant Hope were simple: stop fouling Jordan Hillenburg.
After putting Hillenburg on the free throw line 14 times in the first half, Walnut Grove made things a little more difficult for the Pleasant Hope star in the second half.
Hillenburg scored 18 in the game, but only three after halftime as the top-seeded Tigers outscored Pleasant Hope 27-2 in the third quarter and held the Pirates to no made field goals.
The 68-30 victory sends Walnut Grove, ranked No. 1 in Class 1 in the Dec. 21 MBCA state rankings, to Wednesday’s semifinal round against Pierce City in a 6 p.m. matchup.
“We didn’t do a very good job on (Hillenburg) in the first half,” said Walnut Grove coach Darin Meinders. “One of the things we said was, ‘Don’t put him on the free throw line.’ He went to the free throw line 14 times in the first half. So I was not happy with our effort in the first half or the way we moved the ball.”
“Second half, we came out and got after it.”
Walnut Grove (10-0 overall) scored 16 unanswered points to begin the third quarter and put the game away for good.
Logan Thomazin scored a game-high 25, with three more Tigers reaching double figures: Dawson Meinders (15), Ryan Keith (12) and Hunter Gilkey (11).
“We have a lot of kids that can shoot it and when we move the ball and make the extra pass, it’s a fun team to watch,” Meinders said.
Hillenburg made four of Pleasant Hope’s eight field goals in the game.
Walnut Grove 68, Pleasant Hope 30
Pleasant Hope 5 16 2 7 — 30
Walnut Grove 17 17 27 7 — 68
Pleasant Hope – Jordan Hillenburg 18, Michael Werland 6, Evan Hillenburg 2, Calvin Mitchell 2, Teagen Keck 2
Walnut Grove – Logan Thomazin 25, Dawson Meinders 15, Ryan Keith 12, Hunter Gilkey 11, Cole Melton 4, Kyle Keith 1