By Nolan Epstein
Willard, MO – A 15-0 run for Willard (12-8) to end the first quarter of play provided the homestanding Tigers all that they needed to fend off a drastically improved Neosho (13-10) squad on Friday in a 59-51 victory.
Neosho, winners of three out of its last four games and already carrying five more wins than a season ago, did all it could to overcome a slow start and played virtually even with the Tigers after the opening eight minutes of play.
“I’m proud of my club,” Wildcats head coach Tony Branscum said following the loss. “There were a lot of different points where they could have given in, but they never did.”
After Neosho claimed a modest 6-4 advantage early, a basket by senior Sam Bird with just over three minutes to play in the first quarter sparked the spurt of 15 straight points for Willard. The run was ultimately capped by a Houston Johnson score to turn a two-point deficit into a 13-point lead by the second period.
“A 15-0 run is tough to withstand, mentally,” said Branscum. “If you want to beat good teams, especially on the road, you’ve got to execute for four quarters.”
Things would hold serve with the Wildcats trailing by a score of 34-20 following an emphatic dunk by Johnson midway through the third, but Branscum’s club started to slowly chip away and trimmed the deficit to 44-39 at the 5:10 mark of the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Branscum and the Wildcats, foul trouble took a massive toll as Neosho’s entire starting lineup was off the floor for good by the time the game’s final minutes were ticking down.
“By the five-minute mark in the fourth, we were playing with our JV team and that is a tough obstacle to overcome,” Branscum added. “Those guys fought hard and I’m proud of them.”
Neosho still managed to answer scores by the Tigers and cut the lead back down to five on two more occasions, but Willard, which nailed 16 of 19 free-throws in the final period, did more than enough at the line to keep any late-game drama at bay.
The final nail in Neosho’s coffin came via a technical foul with 2:07 remaining in regulation, which led to a six-point possession for the Tigers and put head coach Lamont Frazier’s team up 59-44.
“That kind of took the wind out of their sails,” Frazier said. “They kept playing, though, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. Play to the end.”
Junior Kenny Chambers led Willard in scoring with 16 points. Senior Ethan Siler led the way for Neosho with 12 points as three Wildcats reached double-figures on the night.
Willard travels to face Blair Oaks tomorrow afternoon, while Neosho stays in conference play next Friday as it hosts Ozark.
Neosho – 6 10 15 20 – 51
Willard – 17 8 16 18 – 59
Neosho – Ethan Siler 12, Connor Johnson 11, Coleman Scott 10, Brady Wise 5, Bryce Murphy 4, Lucas Kibler 4, A.C. Marion 3, Cade Cradduck 2
Willard – Kenny Chambers 16, Houston Johnson 12, Sam Bird 9, Daniel Abreu 8, Kobe Holloman 7, Caiden Dalton 5, Quintin Batson 2