By Matt Turer — firstname.lastname@example.org
Walnut Grove, Mo. — By the end of the third quarter, the battle of Class 1 undefeateds was hardly a battle at all. A vicious combination of foul trouble for Hermitage and the once-cold hands of Walnut Grove’s shooters heating up spelled doom for the Hornets.
In what seemed like a blink of an eye in front of a packed house in a gym that at times felt like a sauna, the Tigers turned a slim 43-40 halftime lead into a 16-point advantage through three quarters, going on to win the game and their third consecutive Walnut Grove Tournament championship, 85-65.
Hermitage (10-1) jumped out to an early eight-point lead on Class 1 No. 1 Walnut Grove (12-0) and seemed primed to give the Tigers a run for the crown. But as they have all season for Logan Thomazin, Hunter Gilkey and Co., the shots began to fall in bunches.
“We just talked in the locker room that we knew we couldn’t shoot that bad again,” Gilkey said. “We were having an off half and the best way to get yourself out of a slump is to keep shooting, and our shooters kept shooting.”
Tournament MVP Thomazin scored 23 of his 38 points in the first half, helping lift up Walnut Grove with four first-half threes, three of which came in the first quarter. Thomazin followed up that first half with 12 of Walnut Grove’s 24 third-quarter points. He finished the with six threes. As a team, the Tigers connected from deep 12 times.
Despite their 43-point first half, Walnut Grove wasn’t satisfied heading into halftime.
A switch to man-to-man defense and a consistent inside attack that got Hermitage’s starters into foul trouble had as big of impacts as the Tigers beginning to spread around their scoring.
“You’ve got to stay out of foul trouble. It’s that simple,” Hermitage head coach Joe Nicholson said.
“They’re a good team and they shoot the ball well and you’ve got to be in their face and you’ve got to be closing out, so we’ve got to stay out of foul trouble because you can’t do those things when you’re in foul trouble. If we can play the defense we were playing in the first quarter late in the game, we have a shot.”
Jeff Salmon led Hermitage with 24 points, 15 coming in the second half with Dillon Meyer and Victor Le Verdier in foul trouble. Meyer and Le Verdier both finished with 12 points but combined for just three in the second half, all coming on a Le Verdier three-pointer.
“We’re very aggressive,” Walnut Grove head coach Darren Meinders said. “We attack the basket or we shoot a three. That first half of that first quarter, we tend to like to dribble the ball way too much, so a difference in the second and third quarter is we were attacking the basket and making them help and making the right kick where in the first half we’d just stand out there and do it all by ourself.”
The two sides are scheduled for a rematch coming in Hermitage on Tuesday, and Nicholson believes the change in atmosphere will provide a different sort of result.
“I knew coming into the game we had a good chance to beat them,” he said. “When we play them at home…we know what we have to do to win the game. On a neutral court, my guys think they can win that game. In this environment, I think my guys played as good as they could possibly play. This is my 93rd game as the coach at Hermitage and I’ve never been happier with the performance in a game than I was in that game.”
Gilkey finished with 21 points for Walnut Grove. Ryan Keith finished with 18 and connected on five three-pointers.
“They’re a good team but getting that win by the amount that we did shows us we’re still a little bit ahead of them, but we’ve got to go play them at their place and that’ll be a tough game,” Gilkey said.
FINAL: Walnut Grove 85, Hermitage 65
Hermitage 22 18 11 14 – 65
Walnut Grove 19 24 24 18 – 85
Hermitage– Jeff Salmon 24, Victor Le Verdier 12, Dillon Meyer 12, Austin Hostettler 8, Darek Reeves 6, Alex Aubuchon 3
Walnut Grove– Logan Thomazin 38, Hunter Gilkey 21, Ryan Keith 18, Cole Melton 5, Kyle Keith 2, Dawson Meinders 1