By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE, Mo. – At the beginning of the week, the West Plains boys were expected to finish in the middle of the pack.
The Zizzers had other plans.
Seeded fourth in the 72nd Carthage Invitational basketball tournament, West Plains beat Belton by 26 points in the first round, and upset top-seeded Joplin 48-38 in the semifinals on Friday.
And on Saturday, the Zizzers never trailed in a 49-43 win over Rogers, Arkansas in the tournament championship game.
“That’s a hard seed right now because it’s early and we had football players who had just a few days of practice,” West Plains coach Shane Benson said. “Nobody really knows what’s going to go on the first of the year. I knew with what we had coming back that we would be able to compete. I’m just proud of them. It’s a good way to start.”
After a 10-16 record last season, the Zizzers are now 3-0 and already have a trophy to display.
They earned it after leading by 14 points in the first half and then surviving some late charges by the Mountaineers.
In what was a sometimes bruising affair, West Plains scored the first seven points and led 13-9 at the end of the first quarter. Senior Garrett Warren capped a 10-0 run with a field goal at the 3:47 mark of the second that made it 21-9.
Warren later converted a three-point play to make it 24-11, and senior Clay Butler added a free throw with 2:31 remaining that gave West Plains a 14-point lead. It was 26-15 at halftime.
Rogers shot its way back into the game in the third quarter. A three pointer by junior Drew Miller cut the West Plains lead to seven points with 4:30 remaining, and another Miller triple kept it a seven-point game a few minutes later.
Sophomore Karsen Veler connected from three-point range with less than a minute left to make it a 35-31 game. A late bucket from West Plains’ Warren gave the Zizzers a six-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Rogers’ Miller scored to cut the lead to four with 7:22 left in the game. The Mountaineers came up empty on six-straight possessions after that point, though, and Rogers was in foul trouble. West Plains went to the line for 14 shots in the fourth quarter and made 10 of them.
It helped the Zizzers go up by double digits again, but Rogers again pulled within four when freshman Will Liddell made a three pointer with 58 seconds on the clock. Warren and junior Allen Marcak added free throws in the final 35 seconds to help seal it.
“I thought our boys did a good job of hanging on,” Benson said. “I thought we played a little bit hesitant late, whether it was nerves or whatever. If we learn how to finish I think we’re got a good ball club and I think we’ll be able to compete with people.”
Warren led West Plains with 18 points. Butler scored 11, senior Jake Swope scored seven, Connor Rackley scored six, sophomore Taylor Harrison scored four and Marcak scored three.
Miller scored 13 points for Rogers.
The key to the win, according to Benson, was simple.
“Just my boys’ toughness,” he said. “They played late last night and it was a real hard-fought ballgame against a good Joplin team. They didn’t have much recovery time. They’re not home, we’re having to travel. The toughness of the boys to play hard and get through some soreness and fatigue.”
West Plains will host Salem on Dec. 4.