By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Sparta, Mo. — Momentum can be a fickle thing.
Both Greenwood and Fair Grove capitalized on big, second-half runs during Saturday’s Sparta Tournament Championship before the Blue Jays finally prevailed in a 71-61 victory.
Sophomore Aminu Mohammed continued his box-score assault with a game high 38 points.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore — regarded as a 5-star collegiate prospect — also pulled down 17 rebounds.
With a deep roster of capable defenders, Fair Grove head coach Cale Ramsey tried to pester Mohammed with an endless wave of tight single and double teams.
“You know that he is going to get his,” Ramsey said of his team’s defensive plan concerning Mohammed. “We tried to make it as difficult as possible on him by throwing a bunch of bodies at him, so we don’t wear one person out. Hopefully, it took a toll on him a little bit more than it did us, but he’s got good guys around him as well.”
Mohammed’s good guys included freshman Tommy Pinegar, who added 14 points for Greenwood, including four 3-pointers.
Pinegar’s ability to convert the drive-and-kick plays were vital to Greenwood’s success, especially in the first half. He talked about exploiting opportunities with so much attention focused on Mohammed.
“Every time he’s driving, he’s always getting double-teamed,” Pinegar said. “So, he gets me the ball whenever I’m open, and I just knock down the shot.”
Greenwood took its first of lead of the game late in the first quarter on a Grant Harper basket with just under a minute remaining.
Classmates Harper and Mohammed each converted a pair of baskets during the 10-0 Blue Jay rally.
Greenwood controlled the scoreboard for most of the game after that point and led by as many as 12 points midway through the third quarter; however, Fair Grove wasn’t quite ready to concede.
Down 45-33, the Eagles rallied behind juniors Cole Gilpin and David Oplotnik.
Gilpin poured in 7 of his team-high 22 points in the third, and Oplotnik followed up with 7 of his 16 in the fourth.
Fair Grove’s rally continued in the fourth quarter, as the Eagles took the lead on an Oplotnik 3-pointer from the left baseline with 6:42 remaining.
Greenwood head coach Darren Taylor talked about the problems Fair Grove’s lineup presented, and how his team responded to the challenge with a 31-19 rebounding advantage in the game.
“Well, they’re so big and deep — that’s been the kind of team that’s gave us problems all year long,” Taylor said. “We try to spread the floor and try to use our speed and quickness as much as we can and did our best to keep them off the boards. I thought we did a decent job rebounding with them.”
After Greenwood quickly answered Oplotnik’s score to regain the lead, a basket from senior Kamron Stacey put the Eagles back on top at 52-51.
Moments later, Fair Grove’s momentum came to a screeching halt.
A technical foul underneath the basket sparked a 7-0 Greenwood run from which the Eagles would not recover.
Pinagar was particularly effective during the Blue Jays burst, converting both technical free throws prior to a back-breaking 3-pointer on the very next possession.
Taylor praised the freshman’s ability to deliver in the clutch.
“Tommy’s done that several times this year,” Taylor said. “He’s the one we sent to the line for the technical free throws, and he can he can shoot the ball. He’s been in this situation before, and he’s handled it well.”
The technical foul caused the Eagles to lose composure for the briefest of moments, but it proved to be a pivotal moment in the game’s outcome.
Ramsey talked about the big Greenwood run that followed.
“It was about 7 points in 20 seconds because of one play, and you got to be smarter than that,” Ramsey said. “I’m really, really proud of the way we played. It’s just one of those deals where emotions got the best of them, and a 7-0 span hurts when you’re up one.”
Another key, late-game possession for Greenwood occurred moments later, with the Blue Jays nursing a 6-point lead.
After running nearly a minute off the clock with patient ball movement, a pair of seniors combined to seal the win for Greenwood when John Sharp drove to the basket and found Garrett Litherland wide open on the block.
For Litherland, the play seemed to take an eternity to develop.
“They were pressing us really hard,” Litherland said. “And so we’re just trying to get it down the court and hold on to it as long as we could to waste time, and then John got trapped in the corner when he got the ball. I was open right underneath the basket, and he luckily turned around and saw me — he threw it and I made it — and that kind of put the game away.”
After the game, Mohammed — the tournament MVP — accepted the first-place trophy and held it high among his cheering teammates.
Taylor offered high praise for his unselfish leader.
“Aminu is very willing to do anything we ask him you to do,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s a center screen-and-roll, step out and shoot the three or bring a ball down the floor, he’s just really good about doing whatever he’s asked to do.”
For Fair Grove, the missed opportunities will hopefully serve as motivation as the team gets closer to postseason play, according to Ramsey.
“If we don’t take anything else away from this, you’ve got to learn from what just happened,” Ramsey said. “You can’t let emotions get the best of you. We had an extremely good three quarters I thought defensively and then, after that one play, the wheels came off. We’ll learn from it and will move on — better that happens now than district time.”
Sparta Tournament Championship Final: Greenwood – 71, Fair Grove – 61
Greenwood 18 19 10 24 — 71
Fair Grove 13 17 13 18 — 61
Greenwood scoring: Aminu Mohammed – 38, Tommy Pinegar – 14, Garrett Litherland – 8, John Sharp – 7, Grant Harper – 4
Fair Grove scoring: Cole Gilpin – 22, David Oplotnik – 16, Kamron Stacey – 7, Kyle Stacey – 7, Dominick Hoskins – 4, Ambrose Broyles – 3, Josh Thompson – 2