By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Brady Ward’s hot shooting from three-point range helped Hartville to an early double digit lead against Branson and the Eagles went on to rout the Pirates 55-25 on Friday in the second round of the 74th Annual Blue & Gold Tournament at JQH Arena in Springfield.
Ward, a junior, connected on three three-point baskets in the first quarter and junior Cody Mahan added a fourth as the Eagles opened up an 18-5 lead.
Ward scored 12 points in the first and just two the rest of the game but that was more than enough for the Eagles to remain unbeaten.
“I just thought the kids came out and really executed the game plan,” Hartville coach Brett Reed said. “They guarded well, they really battled. They wanted to get to the final four of this tournament.”
The Eagles, 10-0 and seeded fourth in the Blue Division, will take on top-seeded Willard at 4 p.m. Saturday in the third round.
A three pointer by Branson senior Aden Arnette and a basket by sophomore Colton Cooper cut the Hartville lead to single digits at 19-10 with 5:35 remaining in the first half, but the Pirates managed just two free throws over the course of their next eight possessions.
Hartville blocked Branson’s final three shots of the half and led 30-12 at the break.
“That was frustrating too because I saw us have an opportunity to get back into it,” said Branson coach Mike Linehan. “All we needed was a bucket. We turned it over a couple times trying. To get us into a set or get us into a system we tried to force it a couple times.”
“I was impressed with the way we guarded and that’s something we strive to do every night, we strive to defend well and rebound well,” said Reed. “We feel like if we can do those two things we’ll have a chance to win any game we play in. Very good effort by the guys tonight and we’re excited about tomorrow.”
Already leading by 18 points, the Eagles outscored Branson 13-2 in the third quarter with five different players scoring.
The lead finally hit 30 early in the fourth quarter to make it 45-14. Branson pulled within 24 but Hartville scored the final three baskets of the game, with junior Josh Bettendorf and sophomore Eric Wilson scoring in the final minute.
Ward led the Eagles with 14 points and was the only player in double figures. Mahan added seven and Cook and Ryce Piper each scored six and Braden Branstetter scored five.
“That’s the thing about our group is we’re so balanced scoring generally every night,” Reed said. “A different person has led us in scoring about six or seven different times this year already so it makes us tough to prepare for, tough to guard because we’ve got so many guys who can put it in the hole. I was pretty proud of all of them tonight. I thought we shot the ball well, thought Brady Ward shot it well from the outside early on to get us going.”
“First of all that’s a very good team,” Linehan said. “They all can play, they move the ball very well, they play very aggressive. They’ve got five guys on the floor at all times that can shoot, that can drive. When we didn’t come out and make some buckets early and they did, they got hot – that one kid had three three’s right off the bat – we dug ourselves that hole and it’s hard to dig out of when you’re playing a good team like that because every time we’d make a mistake they’d make us pay for it.”
Branson, 3-5, was led by seven points from Cooper. Arnette and junior Darion Williams each scored five.