By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard, Mo. — When his team needed it most, Springfield Catholic’s Jake Branham delivered.
The senior guard scored a game-high 26 points to lead the Irish past Lamar in the Class 3 sectional round Wednesday night.
The 68-59 victory marks the second time in less than two weeks the teams have played — Catholic downed Lamar 85-72 on Feb. 12 to close out the regular season.
Irish head coach Dustin Larsen knew the rematch would be no easy affair.
“We knew it was gonna be a physical game coming in tonight,” Larsen said. “They’re disciplined and just have some guys that can really go the offensive boards and can do a lot of positive things. This time of year, everyone’s going to put up a fight, so we just want to try and be better, defensively, because we gave up 72 points the last time.”
From the opening tip, both teams struggled to seize momentum in a tight battle.
A 6-0 run thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers from Ben Galligos and Charlie O’Reilly helped Catholic close out the first quarter with a 19-13 lead.
Lamar’s Case Tucker hit a pair of his own 3-pointers in the first half to keep the Tigers within striking distance.
The sophomore guard scored eight of his team-high 21 points in the first half, as Lamar headed to the break trailing 32-27.
For Larsen, the Irish defensive game plan focused on marking Lamar’s potent shooters and minimizing penetration into the lane.
“They’ve got a good point guard that is extremely fast, so I want to try and contain him and cover up the shooters,” Larsen said. “Of course, they’ve got a guy who gets quite a few dunks, so we want to keep him off the glass and from getting a put-back. Overall, we did a pretty solid job tonight.”
Catholic opened the game up a bit with an 11-3 run in the third period.
Branham’s 3-pointer with 2:31 remaining gave the Irish a 51-41 lead; however, Lamar wasn’t quite finished.
A pair of Tucker free throws midway through the fourth capped a 7-0 for the Tigers that trimmed the deficit to 58-55.
Catholic responded late, thwarting the Lamar rally at the free throw line.
Despite only scoring two baskets in the fourth quarter, the Irish converted 8-of-10 free throws in the final three minutes to preserve the victory.
After the game, Branham talked about Catholic’s big third quarter.
“We knew our offense was playing perfectly fine in the first half,” Branham said. “We just came out with a defensive urgency in the second half and started locking them down and had a quick little run at the end.”
Larsen praised Branham’s performance on a night where the senior was the lone scorer in double figures for the Irish.
“Early on, Jake was being aggressive,” Larsen said. “Going to the basket, but wasn’t getting the finishes. He’s always going to stay the course, keep playing hard and play his game, so we knew it’d be there.”
While the outcome wasn’t what Lamar head coach Matt Powell wanted, the first-year head coach had high praise for his team’s underdog run through the postseason.
The Tigers finish the season with an 18-11 record and Class 3 District 12 title.
“It’s hard saying goodbye to seniors and, this being my first year, they made it awfully easy on me,” Powell said. “We had a little more fun and we played loose here in the past couple weeks. Going into the district as the No. 3 seed, you don’t have anything to lose. It’s an emotional time for them, but I’m awful proud of them staying the course tonight and all the way through districts. They made it easy on me and kept the Lamar basketball program in good shape.”
Joshua Bishop and Truman Kaderly joined Tucker in double figures with 13 and 11 points, respectively.
Next up for Springfield Catholic (27-3) is a March 2 quarterfinal round matchup with Blair Oaks at Southwest Baptist University.
Class 3 Sectional Final: Springfield Catholic – 68, Lamar – 59
Lamar 13 14 20 12 — 59
Catholic 19 13 23 13 — 68
Lamar scoring: Case Tucker – 21, Joshua Bishop – 13, Truman Kaderly – 11, Landon Hardman – 7, Jonathan Jeffries – 7
Catholic scoring: Jake Branham – 26, Charlie O’Reilly – 8, Zach Howell – 8, Tyson Reilly – 7, Mike Manzardo – 2, Will Squibb – 2, Hunter Brown – 5, Ben Galligos – 3, Will Morrison – 4, Wallace Squibb – 3