By Nolan Epstein
Springfield, MO – Tuesday’s quarterfinal contest between Ozark (7-3) and Fair Grove (8-3) contained everything a basketball fan hopes for – runs, comebacks, clutch baskets and last-second stands. For the Tigers, it all culminated in one of the biggest wins of the season.
After being down by as many as 11 points late in the third quarter, Mark Schweitzer’s club climbed the mountain and earned their way to a 55-53 comeback victory and a berth into the Gold Division semifinals of the 71st annual Blue and Gold Tournament.
Following the win, the fourth-year Ozark head coach uttered three words that are synonymous with tournament play at any level.
“Survive and advance,” said Schweitzer. “We’re very fortunate. We’re lucky to get a win.”
The fourth-seeded Tigers appeared ready to take their shot at a fifth-place finish after falling behind by a score of 43-32 with two minutes to play in the third period, but a 23-10 run over the final ten minutes of the game breathed life back into Ozark and gave the Tigers their third straight win of the year.
Ozark’s jubilation equated to Fair Grove’s examination into what went wrong. For the No. 5 seed Eagles, a look at the free-throw percentage certainly told a lot.
In total, Fair Grove converted just 6 of 15 foul shots, including a 2-for-7 showing in the second half. Combining that with a furious offensive run by the Tigers in the fourth, the writing was on the proverbial wall for head coach Tim Brown’s team.
“The fact of the matter is we didn’t make free-throws when we needed to,” said Brown. “Their guard got hot and made some shots, they had a couple guys make shots there and then I think the goal got smaller for us. We’ve just got to be tougher.”
It was the Eagles who put together the game’s first comeback, however, as Fair Grove clawed back from an early 12-3 deficit to tie the score at 22 near halftime.
After Ozark retained a 27-23 edge going into the locker room, the Eagles struck once more – using a 22-7 run to go up by 11.
“Usually, with the small school and big school deal, you talk about the big school pushing around the small school,” Schweitzer said. “I don’t think that was the case. I thought [Fair Grove] pushed us around and our kids have got to get better at dealing with the physicality at the varsity level.”
The Fair Grove charge was led by senior Garrett Kesterson, who knocked in back-to-back threes to begin the third quarter on his way to a game-high 18-point effort. 14 of those points came in the second half.
“Kesterson, if he gets going, he’s hard to guard,” Schweitzer said. “He’s going to hit threes with you on
him. He’s a great player and a great shooter. If he finds it, he’s difficult to guard.”
But one final run, capped by a clutch go-ahead bucket by junior Parker Hanks with 38 seconds to play and an ensuing defensive stand, left Ozark with the last laugh.
The Eagles had a shot at a game-winning score as time expired, but suffocating defense that included a double-team on Kesterson proved to be the ultimate difference.
“We definitely didn’t want to let [Kesterson] beat us, so that’s kind of why we double-teamed him there,” added Schweitzer. “Our kids did a good job of rotating, being in the right spots and then ultimately boxing out.”
Ozark moves on to play top-seeded and arch-rival Nixa tomorrow at 7 p.m. at JQH Arena. Fair Grove moves to the fifth-place bracket and will face Greenwood at 7 p.m. at Hammons Student Center.
Fair Grove – 8 15 22 8 – 53
Ozark – 14 13 11 17 – 55
Fair Grove – Garrett Kesterson 18, David Oplotnik 16, Evan Fullerton 13, Steven Huskey 3, Cole Gilpin 2, Garret Potter
Ozark – Parker Hanks 14, Payton Nichols 14, Quinn Nelson 12, Noah Suiter 9, Carter Burgess 4, Will Pickering 2