By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
When you have a veteran team that has played on the big stage, three-point first quarters and second-half deficits don’t phase you.
Cool, calm and collective, Catholic took control down the stretch to repeat as district champions.
Mike Manzardo and Jake Branham combined for 32 points to lead Catholic past Strafford 61-47 in the Class 3 District 11 Tournament title game on Saturday night at Clever High School.
“It’s tremendous how much (our team) has progressed over the last few years,” said Catholic coach Dustin Larsen. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
After going 21 years without a district championship, the Irish punched their ticket to the postseason for the second year in a row.
“Honestly, I think this one is better than the last one,” Branham said. “This one meant a lot more to us, as seniors. We knew Strafford was going to give us a fight from the start. Props to them, they had a great game plan.
“This one’s sweet, though.”
Catholic (26-3 overall) faces either Lamar at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Willard High School in the Class 3 sectional round. Catholic beat Lamar 85-72 at home on Feb. 12.
Senior Dillon Hester led Strafford with 24 points. The Indians were missing one of their best players in senior Riley Oberbeck, who suffered an injury in Strafford’s regular season finale last week.
But the under-manned Indians came to play.
Catholic trailed 13-3 after the first quarter. The Irish went scoreless through the first 5:30 of game time.
Catholic awoke in the second quarter, outscoring Strafford 21-10 to take a one-point lead (24-23) into halftime.
“We just had to continue to be us and do what we’re doing,” Larsen said. “I thought our guys settled in and did that. Strafford’s a good team. They’re going to come out and frustrate you.”
Catholic slowly pulled away in the fourth quarter. Manzardo’s 3-pointer gave Catholic a 47-35 lead with 6:30 remaining.
Later, Strafford missed a 3-pointer that would’ve brought the Indians within 51-48. The Indians grabbed the offensive rebound, but Hunter Brown stole the ball and fed Branham for layup that put Catholic in control for good (51-43) with just over two minutes remaining.
“Coach Larsen is consistently tells us, ‘No matter what, we can get it done. We can do it,’” Branham said.
Strafford scored six straight to start the second half and went in front, 29-24.
Manzardo answered with a five-point spurt to tie the game. Branham’s steal and layup gave the Irish a two-point lead they would not relinquish. Catholic led 42-35 entering the fourth quarter.
Catholic’s other starting senior guard, Charlie O’Reilly, added eight points.
“Our guards have played (varsity) for four years now and the experience they’ve gained along the way has helped them,” Larsen said
Strafford finishes 21-8 overall and graduates a four-player senior class.
Catholic 61, Strafford 47
Strafford 13 10 12 12 — 47
Catholic 3 21 18 19 — 61
Strafford (21-8 overall) – Dillon Hester 24, Gabe Mahon 8, Wyatt Maples 6, Vance Mullins 6, Nick Losh 3
Catholic (26-3 overall) – Mike Manzardo 17, Jake Branham 15, Will Morrison 9, Charlie O’Reilly 8, Will Squibb 5, Hunter Brown 3, Tyson Riley 2, Ben Galligos 2