By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
No matter the opponent, especially in the opening rounds of the Blue and Gold Tournament, teams must be ready.
And, the second-seeded Catholic Fightin’ Irish were ready for their Gold Division quarterfinal matchup with No. 7 Willard in the 71st version of the tournament on Wednesday night at JQH Arena.
Both teams were all square after the first quarter (13-13) before Catholic took control early in the second quarter on its way to a dominating 71-41 victory.
“Any night, anybody can step up and getcha, if you’re not ready to go,” Catholic coach Dustin Larsen said. “We respect everyone and just want to go out and compete our best against everybody. Crane did a great job (Tuesday night) and in a tournament like this, you’ve got to be ready.”
Catholic was tested in its first-round game with unseeded Crane before moving on with a 60-53 victory.
But the Fightin’ Irish shut down the Tigers’ attack after the first quarter on Wednesday.
“The biggest thing for our guys is that they stayed focused as a team and kept believing in each other,” Larsen said. “We were staying pretty active defensively, just being extremely solid, not taking too many risks and just playing great team defense.
“When we come out and set the tone defensively, we’re a lot better offensively. It was a great team effort. We got in some foul trouble and had some guys really step up.”
And one of those guys was junior Mike Manzardo, who went on a personal 9-0 run to close out the third quarter.
“The great thing about our team is we’ve got great balance,” Larsen said. “We share it and play unselfish. A number of these guys can have a great night, and tonight (Manzardo) was aggressive and had a great stretch; that just shows our unselfish team.”
Catholic had four players in double figures, led by Charlie O’Reilly with 18, Manzardo 17, Ian Cochran 16 and Jake Branham 13.
“From the tip, our guys came out talking and their feet were moving and they were really engaged as a group, defensively, and I think it has to start there every night,” Larsen said.
The Fightin’ Irish held Willard to just three fourth-quarter points, making it difficult for the Tigers to get anything going.
“They (Catholic) were just better in every single aspect of the game,” Willard coach Daniel Cutbirth said. “Early into the third quarter, I think we had cut it to four, and that was it. They outplayed us. They were just better than us. We weren’t very good on the ball, and we really struggled to score the ball tonight.”
Catholic will face No. 3 Rogersville, a 48-36 winner over Bolivar, in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at JQH. Willard meets Bolivar at 8:30 p.m. at Hammons Student Center, in the consolation round.
Blue and Gold Tournament
Gold Division quarterfinal
No. 2 Catholic 71, No. 7 Willard 41
WILLARD (3-5) – Kobe Holloman 2, Elijah Davis 5, Riley Young 9, Daniel Abreu 13, Maurice Grayer 5, Isaac Davis 4, Quintin Batson 2, Austin Biellier 1.
CATHOLIC (8-3) – Jake Branham 13, Mike Manzardo 17, Ian Cochran 16, Charlie O’Reilly 18, Tyson Riley 7.