By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Four days after a 30-point loss at Nixa, the Joplin boys basketball team bounced back in a big way.
The Eagles saw a 17-point lead dwindle to a point in the second half but hung on down the stretch to beat Ozark 79-69 Tuesday night at Kaminsky Gymnasium.
It was the first conference loss for Ozark, the first of two unbeaten Central Ozarks Conference teams the Eagles will host this week with Republic coming to town Friday.
“You’ve got to play the way you did in the first half so that second half doesn’t lose the game for you,” said Joplin coach Jeff Hafer. “That’s a toughness thing and they put themselves in a position to win. Saw that entire lead go away and still made plays at the end and executed to win. Really proud of them.”
Joplin (15-5, 3-1) trailed for three seconds in the first quarter and then cruised the rest of the half, leading 23-18 after a quarter and 42-28 at halftime. Sophomore Always Wright scored 12 points in the first quarter and senior Zach Westmoreland added 10 in the second. They combined for 26 points in the half.
“We played great both sides of the ball in the first half,” Hafer said.
Joplin’s lead first hit 17 points when senior Dakarai Allen scored a minute into the third to make it 47-30. Senior Isaac Meeks scored at the 4:32 mark to make it 52-35.
Ozark (13-8, 3-1) followed with a 9-0 run to get back into game and trailed 52-44 after a free throw by sophomore Ethan Whatley with 2:02 remaining in the third.
The Eagles twice extended their lead to 10 points but Ozark junior Cannon Cox scored with a second left in the third to make it 56-48, then opened the fourth quarter with a bucket. After a Joplin turnover, Ozark sophomore Tyler Harmon scored to make it a four-point game.
Joplin continued to keep the Tigers at arms’ length for several minutes until Ozark senior Jake Skaggs scored to make it 61-60 with 3:42 remaining. A free throw by senior AJ Elliott kept Ozark down by a point less than a minute later, but the Tigers came up empty on two-straight possessions after that and it was enough for the Eagles to gain some breathing room.
Senior Isaiah Davis made a free throw and then Wright added two more. Westmoreland scored at the 2:09 mark to make it 67-61. Three separate times the Tigers pulled within four in the final two minutes, but Joplin always had an answer.
“Second half we were still playing hard and we were doing things, our decision making wasn’t great,” Hafer said.
“We had some things in the second half where we just didn’t take care of the ball,” he said. “We had several where we executed and then we fumbled the ball or missed transition buckets that result in layups and quick, easy buckets for them. Too many live ball turnovers. But at the end of it I was really pleased with them down the stretch. We quit playing passive. The first half we were playing downhill and we got back to that, made better decisions, finished at the rim and we made free throws down the stretch.”
Ozark coach Mark Schweitzer said his team stopped “playing scared” in the second half.
“Their athleticism intimidated our kids,” he said. “We were soft. We weren’t decisive. We weren’t aggressive with our cuts. We looked like we were too afraid to turn it over. Credit that to Joplin and their athleticism. Our kids it took them way too long to figure out that they can combat their athleticism. We’re every bit as good as they are. We weren’t tonight, but I think that’s what makes the COC tough. We beat Nixa, Nixa beats them by 30. They have us on the ropes. I’m glad we at least fought back and showed a little bit of what we’re capable of but it’s a tough league so now you’ve got one unbeaten and a whole bunch of one losses which makes this race pretty much anybody’s to win. It’s going to come down to maybe the final weeks.”
Joplin had three players score at least 20 points. Westmoreland led the team with 22, Wright scored 21 and Allen added 20. Davis finished with 10.
Ozark was led by Elliott’s 15 points; he scored 11 in the fourth quarter. Harmon added 14 and Whatley scored 11.
For fans of free throws, Tuesday’s game was a delight. The teams combined to shoot 61. Joplin was 24-for-33 at the line (72.7 percent) and Ozark made 20 of 28 (71.4).
“It was a physical game,” Hafer said. “Both teams, the way we play trying to play downhill, attacking the basket and them with their motion, you put referees in a bind and it’s hard to be consistent. I thought they did a fairly decent job with it throughout the game. Hard game to call.”
The Eagles made 11 of 15 attempts from the line in the fourth quarter while Ozark was just 1-for-2 in the final period.