By Brock Sisney (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
MT. VERNON — The Mt. Vernon Mountaineers had their proverbial backs against the wall early in the fourth quarter Friday night against Big 8 East rival Springfield Catholic.
Catholic’s 6-foot-5 senior post Will Morrison put the Irish up by 12 points, 49-37, nearly a minute in and it was gut check time for the Mountaineers if they wanted an outright Big 8 East title. The Mountaineers, behind a 17-3 run in the fourth, gutted out a 69-64 overtime victory.
Mt. Vernon, especially its backcourt, ratcheted up the on-ball defense and overall defensive intensity the full length of the floor the rest of regulation and overtime.
Meanwhile, on the offensive end, Mt. Vernon chipped away on Catholic’s lead until a pair of Mason Ballay free throws earned a 52-all score with 2 minutes, 22 seconds remaining in regulation and then Cale Miller’s basket gave the Mountaineers their first lead of the night at 54-52. The Mountaineers hit six 3-pointers in the first half and this opened up driving lanes that Mt. Vernon especially capitalized on during its fourth-quarter comeback.
“At that point, we had no choice,” Mt. Vernon head coach Mike Ray said. “We had to extend our defense and that did disrupt them, especially when (point guard Liam) O’Reilly got into foul trouble and they had to go with some guys that maybe weren’t as comfortable handling the ball. We were able to take advantage of that, get a couple turnovers, and make some shots to get momentum in our favor. We were fortunate there.
“In the first half, those threes kept us in the game because we were struggling moving and dealing with their inside game. I thought in the second half, we did a better job of getting to the rim and just not relying on 3s. We have a good shooting team, so that’s a strength of ours, but we can’t just live and die out there.”
Catholic sophomore Zach Howell knocked down his own pair of free throws for a 54-all game and the teams stayed tied at 56 ending regulation.
In overtime, both teams exchanged punches, until Mt. Vernon took a 66-62 lead after Ballay made his sixth 3-point basket of the contest and Slater Eldridge hit four free throws. Catholic saw its 62-59 lead dissipate in 1:09 of game time.
“That’s what it all comes down to, guys making plays,” Ray said. “My hat goes off to Catholic. The Howell kid is a big-time player and Morrison’s a load inside. We had a team effort and we were able to keep it close and make some plays at the end.”
West champion East Newton (15-8 overall record) hosts East champion Mt. Vernon (14-10) for overall Big 8 bragging rights on Tuesday. The Patriots saw their nine-game winning streak come to an end Friday night with a 53-51 loss against Lamar. That recent tear began when East Newton defeated state-ranked Nevada 50-49.
“It’s still new to us,” Ray said. “Last year was the first year we did it. It’s exciting for the kids. As a coach, it’s something else to stress about, but I know that it’s the overall conference championship. We want our guys to go over there and play loose, and see what we can do.
“They are in our district and that’s one of the reasons coaches frown upon it, because in our district (Class 3, District 12) is Seneca, East Newton and Lamar, teams that we play. I don’t think anybody’s ecstatic about playing a team three times. That’s the way it is, so we’ll do our best.”
The Mountaineers are No. 1 seed for the upcoming district tournament and they open against district host Aurora.
Ballay led Mt. Vernon with 28 points, Miller and Eldridge reached double figures with 15 and 12 points respectively, Chase Johnston scored five of his eight points in overtime and Kai Brown rounded out the scoring with six.
Mt. Vernon outscored Catholic 32-17 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Howell netted a game-high 33 points to spark Catholic and Morrison and Will Squibb combined for 19 points, Morrison 10 and Squibb nine. Starting point guard O’Reilly fouled out with 3:16 left in regulation, when two referees deliberated on a call and determined O’Reilly cleared out his defender.
Howell entered the fourth already having scored 25 points. Especially in overtime, Zach Jones took on the defensive challenge and hounded Howell the length of the floor.
Catholic dropped to 15-10 on the season.
MT. VERNON 69, CATHOLIC 64 (OT)
Catholic 13 17 17 9 8 — 64
Mt. Vernon 12 14 11 19 13 — 69
CATHOLIC (15-10) — Zach Howell 33, Will Morrison 10, Will Squibb 9, Liam O’Reilly 5, John David Bigler 4, Ben Galligos 3.
MT. VERNON (14-10) — Mason Ballay 28, Cale Miller 15, Slater Eldridge 12, Colby Johnston 8, Kai Brown 6.