By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CLEVER — The Hartville Eagles (4-0) made sure to come out fast and set the tone Saturday at the 86th annual Clever Boys Basketball Invitational championship game.
And that is exactly what they did as the fourth-ranked team in Class 2 never trailed, riding a timely offense and a stingy defense en route to the 61-48 win.
Junior forward Eli Cook (6’2”) led the Eagles with his 17-point performance: including 11 points in the final 16 minutes of play.
“I finally got into rhythm,” Cook said. “Just being out on the floor. [I] started feeling the game a little bit, seeing how the defense was playing me.”
The Eagles were textbook: getting out in transition, owning the offensive boards, and taking advantage of second-chance points.
“They try to switch everything,” Cook said of the Fair Grove defense. “So that puts me in good position to slip on everything, so I get a lot of open looks off of that, so that’s good.”
While the offense fired at will, it was the stubborn defense — one that created seven first-half turnovers — that was relentless in its effort at closing down the passing lanes and putting the opposition into unfavorable shot selections.
The Eagles led 22-11 after the first, and extended the lead to 35-20 at intermission.
Head coach Brett Reed said the tournament win speaks volumes on his team’s ability to get going on the right foot.
Of course, never trailing always helps, too.
“I like where we are. As a coach, you are always looking at ways to get better. But as a whole, we got off to a good start. A 15-point lead at halftime and were able to build on it against a good Fair Grove team.”
With the defense clamping down, it was time for the offense to match the momentum.
Junior Guard Cody Mahan came out and hit the 3-pointer on the Eagles’ initial possession of the second half, as they outscored Fair Grove 13-10 to close out the quarter.
Mahan hit another trey and junior Braden Branstetter joined the fun, as he, too, came up big from the perimeter.
Another four Fair Grove turnovers in the third played into the veteran team’s hands, as Hartville outscored the opposing Eagles, 16-10, to close out the quarter.
The roster for coach Reed is upperclassmen heavy: and on any given night, the experience is one asset in which the Eagles are beyond thankful.
Cook said that intangible is one aspect that will serve the team well in 2020.
“Everybody can score the basketball,” Cook said. “That is the good thing about us. You can’t take away one player and beat us. It is what makes us so dangerous down the stretch.”
Fair Grove’s David Oplotnik (led all scoring with 23 points) opened the fourth with a 3-pointer, but back to back possessions that culminated with points, simply was too deep a hole from which to emerge for Fair Grove.
No matter the score, no matter the situation, Hartville kept the pressure on, cutting hard to the rim and finding success on back door cuts.
“Coach Reed preaches cutting hard. It gets us open a lot,” Cook said.
During the semifinals game against Catholic High School, though, the Eagles were anything but textbook.
Cook said that was one adjustment that highlighted the game plan.
“When we played Catholic, we kind of struggled,” Cook said. “That was a big point coming into this game.”
With various tournaments kickstarting the regular season this week, the tough competition is a nice way to break in the campaign, Cook said.
Added Cook: “It is great to come up here and play some bigger schools. We are a Class 2 team, and we are trying to play the toughest teams we can to make a postseason run, for sure.”
Scoring for Hartville: Cook -17; Branstetter-8 (two 3s); Ryce Piper -10; Holton Simmons-5; Brady Ward-10; Mahan-11.
For Fair Grove: Oplotnik-23; Ryan Berry-8; Ambrose Broyles-7; Dominik Hoskins 3; Devin Carrol-3; Darin Oplotnik-2; Logan Daniels-1; Alex Ince-1.