By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPOKANE, Mo. — Hosting the annual Spokane Invitational has been a constant for 35 years for the Spokane Owls boys basketball team (11-5).
But on Friday, the third-seeded Blue Eye Bulldogs (12-4) played spoiler, outlasting the top-seeded host, 54-43, to win the tournament championship in front of an energized Spokane crowd.
While the Bulldogs surged to the 11-3 first-quarter lead, before creating added separation at halftime, 21-15, the effort on the defensive proved most vital on this night.
“Defense was really the key in the first half,” Bulldogs head coach Kyle Turner said. “Offensively, I thought we didn’t execute. We missed some easy shots early that we shouldn’t have, but our defense was keeping us in it.”
The Bulldogs were stingy on the defensive end. They were able to force 10 first-half turnovers and 20 for the game, which gave more opportunity on the offensive end — where the senior guard-forward tandem of Nathan Garnett (named tournament MVP) and Hayden Forester (named all-tournament team) netted 20 points each.
The balance is exactly what Turner had hoped to see.
The Owls were held scoreless until the final 30 seconds of the opening quarter, when Jaden McCoy connected for the 19-footer.
Playing at Spokane is no easy task for opposing teams, and the Bulldogs felt the ambience emanating from the boisterous student section all night long.
“We were able to match the intensity that they were bringing,” said Turner. “Their crowd was bringing it early on, and things got a little crazy at the end.”
In the third, the Owls kept clawing away, as they held the Bulldogs to 10 points.
With the gap narrowed down to seven points, the Owls utilized their box press in an effort to speed up the opposition.
At two separate junctures, the Owls were within striking distance, but the strong interior play by Forester and Lance Clark — compounded with timely perimeter shooting by Garnett — the Bulldogs closed out the tournament with three consecutive wins.
“We got a little crazy at the end, but we were able to hang on and weather the storm,” said Turner.
Turner has a nice luxury this season, with four seniors in uniform: one of which continues to serve as the team’s figurative motor.
The Bulldogs go as Garnett goes, and the senior’s slice-and-dice dribble penetration kept the Owls defense on its heels for most of the game.
Garnett deflected attention regarding his tournament MVP mention, and said the game plan each night is relatively simple.
“I think the game plan for us is just to win,” he said. “All nights … we have guys who can drop 20 (points). When it comes to it, we all come in and put in work. Me coming in, I just wanted to lead my team with my character, and just bring the energy. It fell on me tonight, but that could be any of us on any given night.”
In the fourth, the defense forced a turnover on Spokane’s initial possession, and Clark hit the 10-footer.
Then, Clark connected for the put-back deuce, and the Bulldogs were back up 10 points, 35-25.
A 10-9 run by the Owls made it a bit hairy for Turner and company, though, as the Owls pulled to within two possessions, 45-40, with a little more than two minutes remaining.
Protecting the five-point lead down the stretch, Forester’s presence on the glass paid off yet again, as he scored the put-back.
Another Spokane turnover led to Garnett’s final 3-pointer of the night as the Bulldogs pulled off the tournament upset.
So, what worked so well for the Bulldogs?
“We came out and worked well as a team,” Forester said. “We got the ball moving around. We all work together, play a lot of team ball.”
No matter if it were Forester or Garnett, players were attacking the glass on both ends: something in which the team takes great pride.
Added Forester: “It was really crucial against Spokane because they play such a fast-paced game. We play a more steady-set offense.”
Blue Eye 11 10 10 23 (Garnett-20; Forester-20; Clark-4; Reagan-5; Pace-2; Mitchell-3).
Spokane 3 12. 8 20 (Bray-14; Gayle-9; Stewart-2; McCoy-8; Newell-8; Wiggins-2).