By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Billings, Mo. — In basketball, fast starts are not unusual.
There are opening flurries, and then there are first-round haymakers like the 30-spot Billings put up en route to a 77-68 victory over Blue Eye Friday night.
The Wildcats’ swarming, half-court defense overwhelmed Blue Eye early on and paved the way for a frantic Billings transition attack.
Head coach Kendall Tilley talked about emphasising a fast pace whenever the opportunity presented itself.
“We kind of match up well with [Blue Eye],” Tilley said. “We talked before the game and said anything we got, we were going to push it on these guys, because they’re really good, and we’ve got very little to lose right now.”
Knocking down five 3-pointers in the quarter didn’t hurt, either.
Junior Bobby Brown connected on three perimeter bombs, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the opening frame.
“They kept coming off of me,” Brown said. “I was feeling it in warmups, and I got the release down, so I just kept on shooting it. My guys do a good job of giving me a good pass when I’m open, and that’s how I make a lot of my shots.”
After watching his team endure a shooting slump on Tuesday in a loss to Spokane, Tilley was relieved to see his shooters finding early success.
“[Brown] is like that,” Tilley said. “He’s a streak shooter that can go for 12 points in a quarter and then maybe go a couple quarters without having to do a whole lot. It was good to free him up tonight. If we can keep our five guys in the game and looking for each other, we can hit some shots and be pretty tough to beat.”
Billings led 30-19 at the end of the quarter.
To make matters even worse for Blue Eye, 6-foot-4 junior Andrew Mitchell picked up his third foul early in the second quarter and was forced to the bench after scoring 11 of the Bulldogs’ 19 points.
Already facing an uphill battle, Blue Eye head coach Kyle Turner knew things wouldn’t get any easier without his leading scorer and playmaker on the floor.
“Without [Mitchell] that definitely hurt us,” Turner said. “A lot of what we do goes through him on both ends of the floor. He’s kind of the anchor for our defense, as well. It hurt us, and they can pay a lot more attention to other people whenever he’s not on the floor.”
After trailing by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, Blue Eye rallied in the fourth.
The Bulldogs knocked down five 3-pointers in the quarter — two in the final 49 seconds — to pull within 9 points; however, Billings was able to convert 6 of 9 free throw attempts in the final frame to thwart the comeback.
After the game, Tilley was fortunate to have a comfortable lead midway through the fourth.
“You’ve got a little bit of room to play with there, and they had nothing to lose,” Tilley said. “They can shoot the ball, and we just tried to get the ball inbounds, come down and make our free throws … some days we do, and some days we don’t.”
Four Wildcats finished the game in double figures, including senior Luke Johnson (17), junior Tyler Essick (16), junior Grant Groves (15) and Brown (14).
For Blue Eye and Turner, the game was an unfortunate reminder to last season’s matchup, a 74-54 Billings blowout win.
We finally started battling there towards the end,” Turner said. “But when you get behind that far against a quality team, it’s hard to dig yourself out of that hole.”
Playing on Groundhog Day probably didn’t help, either, although Ned Ryerson would have certainly approved.
“I didn’t think we came out as focused as we should have been,” Turner said. “We had way too many turnovers and didn’t pay attention to the scouting report and find shooters. They hit five 3s in the first quarter, and you give somebody 30 points in the first quarter, you dig yourself quite a hole.”
Disappointing loss aside, there’s still work to be done for Blue Eye, and Turner challenged his team in the locker room after the game.
“This was a good wakeup call for us,” Turner said. “How do we respond? Are we going to try and live off the first half of the season, or are we going to take this, learn from it, refocus and use it to build towards districts — our ultimate goal.”
Sophomore Nathan Garnett and senior Ryan Reagan joined Mitchell in double figures for the Bulldogs with 16 and 13 points, respectively.
Both teams are back in action next week. Blue Eye (15-4) hosts Sparta on Tuesday, Feb. 6, while Billings (16-7) travels to Niangua on Friday, Feb. 9.
Varsity Final: Billings – 77, Blue Eye – 68
Billings 30 12 17 18 — 77
Blue Eye 19 14 13 22 — 68
Billings scoring: Luke Johnson – 17, Tyler Essick – 16, Grant Groves – 15, Bobby Brown – 14, Kyler Tennis – 8, Jacob Smith – 7
Blue Eye scoring: Andrew Mitchell – 24, Nathan Garnett – 16, Ryan Reagan – 13, Jacob Crouthamel – 6, Brennan Fairchild – 6
JV Final: Billings – 54, Blue Eye – 25
(Kyler Tennis – 16 points)