By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
MARIONVILLE – After Pierce City denied the Marionville Comets the chance to win the first Southwest Conference championship a couple of weeks ago, Comets head coach Ted Young said his team had to go back and “work on some stuff.”
That “stuff” – consisting of mental and physical toughness – made the difference Friday night as the fourth-seeded Comets held off second-seeded Verona 55-48 to win the Class 2 District 11 title.
“I think after that (Pierce City) loss, we needed to go back and learn to be tougher,” Young said, “mentally tougher, because I think that game wore us down mentally, and I didn’t think we played extremely well. But the teams we were playing and the kind of defense they were playing, made us be a little more mentally tough.”
Marionville, which improved to 20-7, upset top-seeded and state-ranked Crane (No. 9) 63-59 in the semifinals Thursday night to get to the finals.
The Comets took a 15-12 first-quarter lead behind the 11 points of senior Gavin Stanton, who added nine more in the second quarter for 20 first-half points, sending the Comets to a 29-19 halftime lead.
Stanton went on a personal 6-0 run midway through the second quarter on a layup, a putback and two free throws.
“I always try to get it in the paint,” Stanton said. “I wouldn’t really count myself as a perimeter guy. I’m always trying to drive and get it in there and shoot layups. It was a big game. I was pretty pumped.”
But, Verona was the second-seeded team for a reason. Even after Marionville got up by as many as 15 points (41-26) in the third, the Wildcats (22-6) turned to what got them to where they are – their up-tempo style and their pressure defense – namely, their half-court trap, which caused problems for the Comets in the second half.
“That’s something that kind of gives us a little trouble, but we’re getting better at it,” Young said. “We’ve seen it, since the Pierce City game, three times. It’s not pretty, that defense, when you play against it, but I thought we had some toughness. Our guards had some problems turning it over, but late, when we needed to, they took care of it; they penetrated and got the ball where we needed to get it.”
Foul trouble also cooled Stanton’s offensive output in the second half, but the Comets were able to keep the Wildcats at bay.
“I don’t know if that took away some of his aggressiveness in the second half, but he set the tone for us in that first half,” Young said. “That’s what he does. He can go inside and out, penetrate, or he can make a jumper, so that’s a blessing for us.
“The other kids did a good job of passing him the ball; they cut and he cut and everybody kind of worked together, so it was a team effort, definitely.”
Verona used an 8-0 run to pull within seven (41-34) with about a minute left in the third, and outscored the Comets 18-12 to cut Marionville’s lead to six heading into the fourth quarter.
“We finally got it down to four,” Verona coach Brad Stewart said, “but you put in so much energy and we have to play with a lot of energy because we’re not extremely deep. We had guys that played 32 minutes (Thursday) night. I thought we were a step quicker than Billings last night and a step slower than Marionville, especially in the first half, until we got something going.”
A 6-0 run with about a minute to go, pulled the Wildcats within four points (52-48), but they went scoreless the rest of the way, and Laythen Utke hit 3 of 4 free throws to put the game away and add to a trophy case full of district titles for Marionville.
“I’ve been here 20-some years, and I’m not sure how many, but I like them all,” Young said. “I’m really proud of these seniors because they’ve been together for a long time and I’m really proud of them to be able to win something like that. They’ve put in the time.”
Verona will lose seven seniors next year, including Caleb Hillhouse, who led the Wildcats with 23 points.
“They’re a great group of young men and a pleasure to coach,” Stewart said. “Many of them have been four-year starters and they’ve had great careers and played 100-some varsity basketball games. I’m just proud of them.”
The Comets also rely heavily on a senior-laden starting lineup that was part of a district championship their freshman year.
“I’m just really proud of them,” Young said. “Everybody did their job and our young kids came in and did some good things for us, gave us some good minutes and then our seniors kind of finished it off.
“With where you want to go this time of year, you’ve got to be a little tougher because it’s a little more physical, so we had to get tougher to win a district championship.”
Marionville will face the Class 2 District 12 winner between Liberal, which beat Pierce City 52-42 in the semifinals, and Thomas Jefferson in the sectional round at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 27.
The Comets haven’t played either school this season.
“At this time of year, you’re not going to change a whole lot of what you do,” Young said. “You do what you do and hopefully, you do it well. It’s time to survive and advance, and that’s what we did.”
Class 2 District 11
MARIONVILLE 55, VERONA 48
VERONA (22-6) – Eddie Gutierrez 7, Anthony Martinez 3, Jaiden Carrasquillo 3, Kolton Pinkly 8, Caleb Hillhouse 23, Austin Valdez 2, Chris Werner 2.
MARIONVILLE (20-7) – Josh Goodman 9, Gavin Stanton 27, Laythen Utke 5, Dominick Clevenger 11, Lake High 3.
All-District team – Tyler Campbell, Crane; Caleb Hillhouse, Verona; Gavin Stanton, Marionville; Kolton Pinkly, Verona; Isaiah Smith, Crane; Josh Goodman, Marionville; Colton Plowman, Billings; Bobby Brown, Billings; Joel Kleeman, Miller; Bailey Baker, Greenfield.