By John Miller
He made headlines in the semifinals on Wednesday against archrival Nixa for his ability to shoot the basketball, but Quinn Nelson doesn’t want to be known as a shooter. In Thursday’s championship against Willard, he showed off a different part of his game: defense.
With Ozark’s lead cut to six points with just under five minutes to play and Willard in the middle of a mini-run, Nelson made a defensive play that helped turn the game. The 6-foot-2 junior stepped in front of a lob pass on the baseline, notching the steal, and made a jumper at the other end, helping the No. 4-seed Ozark Tigers hold off the unseeded Willard Tigers 54-46 in the Gold Division championship on Thursday night at JQH Arena.
“I don’t want to be known as a shooter because then you’re just easy to guard if you’re one aspect of the game,” said Nelson, who finished with a game-high 17 points. “I try to level off my game at different aspects. Just getting those hustle, those loose balls, being a scrappy player. I take pride in that.”
Ozark’s championship is its second Blue and Gold title in the last three years. Two years ago, they beat Bolivar 59-54 in the Gold Division final.
“It’s pretty good for a four seed,” Ozark coach Mark Schweitzer quipped. “We didn’t think we were a four seed, but we were, and we just proved to everybody that we’re not.”
Last year, Ozark reached the Blue Division final but got handled by Kickapoo, 73-44.
“That wasn’t very fun,” Nelson said. “This year, … it feels amazing. We got the trophy. That’s what we wanted.”
Parker Hanks had 11 points for Ozark and Carter Burgess added 10. Kenny Chambers led Willard with 11 points.
Scrappiness was extra-important on Thursday against Willard, a team that prides itself on pressure defense and toughness. Ozark beat Willard at its own game, forcing seven first-quarter turnovers and building an 8-0 lead right out of the gate.
“Those extra possessions mean the world, they mean the game, they mean the tournament,” Nelson said.
The Tigers led 11-8 after one and extended it to 28-17 by the end of the half.
“I knew that this game would not be pretty,” Schweitzer said. “I was actually very surprised we were able to get up double-digits in the first half. I thought we were very patient and surgical in the first half.
“Second half, (Willard) got to us with the pressure a little bit, which is normal. They’re high school kids, and they’re on the brink of winning a title.”
Ozark also was playing point-guard-by-committee. After losing returning junior point guard Curt Gracey to injury before the season began, junior Will Pickering went down in Wednesday’s semifinal win and the Tigers fear his season may be over, too.
“We’re on our third try at finding a point guard,” Schweitzer said.
After turning the ball over only four times in the first half, Ozark gave it away eight times in the second. Willard chipped away at Ozark’s lead, cutting a double-figure deficit into two or three possessions midway through the fourth.
Sam Bird’s layup with 4:54 remaining chopped Ozark’s advantage to 42-36. Ozark turned the ball over on its next trip down and Willard, in familiar territory, seemed poised for another tournament comeback.
That’s when Nelson intercepted a pass, calming Willard’s momentum and giving Ozark the spark it needed.
“We keep track of those defensive statistics and things like that,” Schweitzer said. “I have a metric I use to grade the kids, and they get a score for each game. Quinn’s been our leader so far. Even when he’s not shooting, he’s our leader because of deflections, the tips. He’s been having four to six assists per game, four or five defensive stops like that one.
“He’s a great player. It’s new for him to be the man. This tournament is going to help him out a lot to realize that, and we’re going to be a better team once he fully realizes how good he can be.”
Ozark 54, Willard 46
Ozark 11 17 9 17 54
Willard 8 9 13 16 46
Ozark: Nelson 17, Hanks 11, Burgess 10, Nichols 7, Reinke 3, Suiter 3, Wacha 3
Willard: Chambers 11, Bird 9, Johnson 8, Jackson 7, Holloman 6, Abreu 2, Davis 2, Anderson 1