By Calen VanNess (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
“At the end, I made it count.”
After a physical back-and-forth battle, and with the score tied at 45-45, sophomore guard Braden Branstetter put up a three at the buzzer that gave the Hartville its seventh consecutive district championship with a 48-45 victory over Class 2 No. 1 Mansfield.
With 14.8 seconds remaining, Hartville coach Brett Reed called a time out to set up a play for the final shot of regulation. After burning off a few more seconds, senior guard Wyatt Mahan penetrated toward the right side of the basket before being met by two Mansfield defenders. He then dished it back out to sophomore guard Brady Ward who quickly passed it to Branstetter on the left wing. With under a second to shoot, Branstetter hoisted up a shot that saw the ball bounce around virtually every inch of the rim before finding the bottom of the net.
Pandemonium broke out for Hartville, while hearts broke for Mansfield.
“First of all, I want to thank the good Lord and Savior because without him I wouldn’t have made it,” said Branstetter of his winning shot. “I just knew I had to make that shot for my team to win. I didn’t shoot it very well at the beginning, but at the end I made it count.”
“One of the most dramatic finishes of the season for us and maybe for quite some time for the program,” Reed said of his team’s win. “Just a big shot at the end.”
In a game that saw Mansfield lead 11-6 after the first quarter, the Hartville Eagles showed that although they are young, they do not know the meaning of giving up.
Hartville saw momentum swing back in their favor in the second quarter after a technical was called on Mansfield. After making the two free throw shots, Mahan scored a basket that cut Mansfield’s lead to 18-17 midway through the quarter. After a traditional three-point play by Wyatt Mahan, with sophomore guard Cody Mahan shortly thereafter adding two points, junior guard Holton Simmons put the Eagles on top at the half 24-21 on a put back.
But Mansfield was not going to lay down for Hartville either.
The Lions came out of the locker room roaring after halftime and quickly took the lead back from the Eagles on an impressive behind-the-back dribble and pull-up three pointer by senior guard Payton Watterson that put Mansfield back on top 28-26. By the time the buzzer sounded at the end of the third quarter, the Lions had increased their lead to 36-31.
Then came the wild finish.
After trading baskets for much of the quarter, Hartville started to chip away at their deficit and pulled within 41-40 after Cody Mahan scored on a put back over Mansfield’s 6’9” senior Dylan Caruso.
After the two teams traded baskets, Ward answered with a three pointer with 1:37 left in the game that gave the Eagles a 45-43 advantage.
“You just have to be a big shot taker and a big shot maker,” said Ward in reference to his two important three pointers in the fourth quarter for Hartville. Ward led the Eagles with 15 points.
The lead did not last, however, as Caruso laid in the tying basket on Mansfield’s next possession.
Then came the “Shot Heard Round Hartville” that will have people talking for quite some time.
Branstetter’s teammates could not have been happier for him sending them to sectionals, and they had all the faith in the world in him.
“I dished off to [Branstetter] and he took care of the rest,” said Ward about the winning shot.
“He puts so much time in the gym,” said Eagles sophomore forward Eli Cook. “He’s the best shooter on our team. I knew it was in when it left his hands.”
Although one big shot will be what many remember about this game, it was Hartville’s defense that ultimately kept them in the game.
Cook saw himself matched up against Caruso most of the night, albeit with some help from his teammates at times.
“I just tried to be physical,” said Cook of the much taller Caruso. “I never wanted to let him get me pinned, and I just kept my feet moving and kept my feet away from him. We talk about it all the time in practice.”
Caruso led Mansfield with 15 points.
It is no secret that Hartville has a longstanding winning tradition. As seniors come and go, this program just keeps pumping out wins and district titles.
Reed knew that his team was fortunate to come away with a win against the No. 1 ranked team in Class 2.
“I have to give credit to Mansfield,” said Reed. “[They are] very well coached and have a great group of seniors there. We knew it was going to take a monumental effort on our part to get it done. We were just fortunate enough to be leading when the buzzer sounded.”
Although his team now has to prepare for Greenwood on Wednesday night, he knows that this win is pretty special for not only his players, but also for the town of Hartville.
“All of [the district championships] are extremely special,” said Reed. “We have had a very good run of talent and really great kids, but this one definitely ranks high being that we were the underdog and we are pretty young. This one is special maybe because it was at home in front of our big crowd, and no community deserves this type of success more than Hartville. They come out and support us every time we are on the floor.”
Cook succinctly summed up how this win felt against Hartville’s biggest rival.
“It feels so good.”
Hartville 6 18 7 17—48
Mansfield 11 10 15 9—45
Hartville – Brady Ward 15, Cody Mahan 8, Wyatt Mahan 6, Ryce Piper 6, Holton Simmons 6, Eli Cook 4, Braden Branstetter 3
Mansfield – Dylan Caruso 15, Hunter Gray 11, Heston Gray 9, Payton Watterson 5, Jay’lan Williams