By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Kael Combs has always dreamed about playing varsity basketball for Nixa High School.
On Tuesday night, his dreams became crunch-time reality.
And the 6’3” freshman guard delivered when it mattered most.
Combs scored the game-tying layup then, seconds later, made the decisive free throws in a 48-46 home victory over previously undefeated Hartville.
Combs drew a foul with 0.8 seconds left on the clock and calmly stepped up to the free throw line with the game tied at 46. He made both attempts.
“We practice free throws all the time in practice, so I wasn’t really nervous,” Combs said. “I knew I was going to knock them down.”
On the previous possession, down two, Nixa put the ball in the freshman’s hands with under 10 seconds remaining.
“Coach was like, ‘Kael, make a move to the baseline and come up to the top of the key and get (the ball). We’re going to have the backside clear for you,’” Combs said. “I got the ball and the backside was clear.
“I was trying to wait longer for the time to run out, but I went to the basket and saw the defender come over. I took a euro step and made (the layup).”
After Combs’ game-tying layup, Hartville committed a turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass. Combs got the ball again, and drew contact on his defender to set up the game-winning free throws.
After scoring just 26 points through the first three quarters, Nixa exploded for 22 points in the fourth.
“We feel good about that win,” said Nixa coach Jay Osborne. “Kids didn’t quit. We hit some big shots, finally.”
Hartville finished 15-for-25 at the free throw line. Seven of the ten misses occurred in the fourth quarter.
“We talk about the mistakes of the kids – the turnovers, the missed free throws – (the play at the end) was on me,” said Hartville coach Brett Reed. “I should’ve drew up a better play on the in-bounds. Generally, the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins. And we just made too many of them.”
Hartville nearly put the game away early in the fourth quarter. Ryce Piper’s 3-pointer gave Hartville its biggest lead of the game, 35-26.
Kaleb Wofford sparked Nixa’s rally with back-to-back 3-pointers that made it 35-32.
Later, Josh Mason’s 3-pointer with 1:40 remaining gave Nixa its first lead (43-42) since the first half.
Nixa, 12-3 overall, has won five straight.
“Games like this, a year ago, we couldn’t finish. We couldn’t win,” Osborne said. “We we’re finding ways to finish this (season).”
Hartville (15-1 overall) saw its 19-game regular season winning streak end. The Class 2 Eagles hadn’t lost a regular season game since Feb. 1, 2019 at Dora.
Looking ahead, losing to Class 5 Nixa doesn’t impact Hartville’s postseason aspirations.
“We don’t want a consolation prize or anything, but to come up here and play a good program – a Hall of Fame program – I thought we competed well,” Reed said. “If we had to lose one to make us hungrier and prepare us for the playoffs, then this was a good one to lose.
“This game does nothing but make us better. We can see what some of our weaknesses are and try to fix those going into the playoffs.”
Hartville, ranked No. 2 in the Class 2 state coaches’ poll, returns to action next week at the Mountain Grove Tournament. Nixa plays at Kickapoo this Friday night.
Nixa 48, Hartville 46
Hartville 12 10 10 14 — 46
Nixa 11 7 8 22 — 48
Hartville (15-1 overall) – Ryce Piper 15, Cody Mahan 13, Brady Ward 9, Holton Simmons 5, Eli Cook 3, Braden Branstetter 1
Nixa (12-3 overall) – Josh Mason 10, Kael Combs 9, Kaleb Wofford 9, Jason Jones 7, Colin Ruffin 6, Evann Long 3, T.J. Sorgenfrei 2, Tanner Collard 2