By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
STRAFFORD – The Fair Grove Eagles made it two-for-two in the upset department, as they knocked off top-seeded Strafford 34-31 in the Class 3 District 11 championship game Saturday night.
The Eagles, who won their first district title since going back-to-back in 2016 and 2017, upset the No. 2 seed Catholic 52-50 in the semifinals on Thursday night, setting up Saturday’s fireworks.
“It feels really good,” Fair Grove senior Cole Gilpin said of the title. “We’ve worked for quite a few years and came up short a few years in a row, and it just feels good to be back in this position to keep playing basketball.”
The game had the feel of an old-fashioned, defensive battle, possession-valuing, low-scoring kind of game – and, all of the excitement.
“It’s great, (they) really put all their effort in the defense,” Fair Grove coach Cale Ramsey said. “They kind of hang their hat on the defensive side of the basketball, and it showed tonight. It was hard-going the entire game, you fought for every point that you could get, and I’m just very proud of the way that our boys battled.”
Baskets were hard to come by early in the first quarter. It wasn’t until the 5:15 mark that Strafford got its first basket on a Zak Lutgen drive down the lane. That opened things up for the Indians, who went on a 7-0 run for a 7-0 lead.
Fair Grove’s drought lasted until Dominik Hoskins scored on a putback to spark an Eagles 7-0 run to even the score (7-7) at the end of the quarter.
Strafford used another 7-0 run in the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead. David Oplotnik scored on a putback (14-9) for Fair Grove, and Lutgen answered with two free throws (16-9).
A few fouls and turnovers later, Gilpin was fouled going up for a layup and fell hard to the floor, shaking his left wrist as he got up. He missed the first free throw but made the second (16-10).
Gilpin really was able to shake off the pain a short time later, as he picked up a steal and banked in a 3-pointer from about half-court at the buzzer (16-13), giving the Eagles the momentum going into halftime.
“It had a lot (of momentum),” Gilpin said of the buzzer-beater. “We just knew that we had to stay together in the second half, and keep playing together and work hard and we’ll come out on top.”
From there, Strafford held a slim lead in the third quarter before Fair Grove’s Hoskins tied it at 20 with a jumper from the free-throw line with 1:35 to go. Seth Soden put the Indians back on top with back-to-back 3s for a 26-20 advantage.
But, Gilpin wasn’t finished. He hit another buzzer-beater on a baseline jumper to shrink Strafford’s lead to four (26-22). Gilpin’s runner in the lane pulled the Eagles within two (26-24) to open the fourth quarter, and the teams went back-and-forth over the next few minutes.
Gilpin picked up his third and fourth fouls within about two minutes of each other, and another Fair Grove foul sent Strafford to the line for a one-and-one. The front end was missed with Strafford still leading 29-28.
Gilpin was fouled on the inbounds play and hit two free throws to give the Eagles their first lead of the game (30-29) with 2:10 remaining in the game. He was fouled again with 42.3 seconds left and knocked down both shots (32-29).
He then picked up his fifth foul with 10.1 seconds left, sending Lutgen to the line where he made both ends of the 1-and-1 (32-31).
After getting fouled with 4.3 seconds to go, Darin Oplotnik hit the biggest and only points he scored Saturday night – making both free throws to give Fair Grove a 34-31 advantage.
Strafford had a chance to send the game to overtime, but missed a 3-pointer just before the final buzzer.
“You never want to see your point guard go out with five fouls, especially in a close game,” Ramsey said. “But, I’ve got a team full of seniors that are pretty confident. They stepped up, they filled the shoes that they needed to fill, and we came out of here with a win.”
Even though his team was not able to advance, Strafford coach Tyler Ryerson was proud of the Indians’ effort Saturday night.
“We got a good look, the kids executed well, it just didn’t go in,” Ryerson said. “I thought we guarded well enough to win, that’s kind of been our trademark all year. We’ve been really good on the defensive end, had some spurts of being good offensively, but it wasn’t enough. We scored 31 points, but we’re not going to win a ton of games that way.
“But, I’m proud of our seven seniors for the work that they put in for four years. I’ve only been here for two of them, but I couldn’t be more proud of that group. They’re not the most skilled group, but man, they’re tough, they play hard. They’re very coachable and great young men. I couldn’t be more blessed.”
Fair Grove advances to the sectional round where it will take on Pierce City, a 77-72 (4OT) winner over Mount Vernon, at 7:45 p.m. at Willard.
“At this point in time, you take it one game at a time,” Ramsey said. “You know that you’re going to get everybody’s best shot, so you’ve just got to be ready to play every game from here on out.”
Class 3 District 11
FAIR GROVE 34, STRAFFORD 31
FAIR GROVE 7-6-9-12—34
FAIR GROVE (20-5) – Cole Gilpin 12, Ambrose Broyles 4, Ryan Berry 2, David Oplotnic 8, Dominik Hoskins 6, Darin Oplotnik 2.
STRAFFORD (18-10) – Zak Lutgen 12, Vance Mullins 5, Clay Lawson 3, Sawyer Lumley 2, AK Rael 3, Seth Soden 6.
Up next: Class 3 sectional – Fair Grove vs. Pierce City, 7:45 p.m., at Willard.