By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Republic, Mo. — As it turns out, the hype was undeniably deserved.
In one of Missouri’s most-anticipated postseason matchups of state-ranked teams, No. 2 Hartville defeated No. 1 Greenwood 49-47 Saturday in the Class 2 quarterfinal round.
Ryce Piper hit two free throws with five seconds remaining to seal the victory and send the Eagles back to the final four..
With the score tied at 47-47 and Hartville working down the clock for a final shot, the 6-foot-2 junior was fouled during a chaotic scramble for a loose ball.
“We had 20 seconds left and we’re going to get the last shot; try to take over the game and win it,” Piper said. “So it got messy. [Greenwood] started coming after us with pressure, lost the ball it bounced around. Once we got the foul, I knew I had to step up and make two free throws.”
Braden Branstetter led Hartville with 16 points.
After getting knocked out in 2019 by the eventual state champion (73-71), the 6-foot-2 junior noted the game definitely had a revenge angle in play.
“We’ve been looking forward to this day since last year when [Greenwood] beat us in sectionals,” Branstetter said. “It means the world to me. Any of us can have a great night on any given night. Tonight, we just got it done.”
With Greenwood’s back line protected by a pair of long, 6-foot-5 defenders in Aminu Mohammed and Kaden Stuckey, Hartville opted for a patient, perimeter-based approach against the Blue Jays’ zone.
Specifically, the Eagles and head coach Brett Reed worked out of a four-corner set for most of the contest.
“We felt like if we could get out to a little bit of a lead, we could do that,” Reed said. “They’re so hard to guard — Mohammed’s such a great player, and they’ve got a great supporting cast with him — we felt like if we could have a game that had less possessions, then we would fare better.”
Reed’s plan didn’t materialize immediately.
Greenwood jumped out to the early lead with a 7-2 run; however, it didn’t take Hartville long to recapture the game’s momentum.
Fueled by a barrage of long-range buckets, the Eagles responded with a 15-2 run to recapture the lead.
Hartville led by as many as eight in the half; however, Greenwood would close the gap to a single basket (23-21) prior to the break.
In the third, Hartville’s perimeter shooting streak continued, with Branstetter and Cody Mahan finding success from long range.
Trailing 38-31 heading into the final frame, Greenwood turned, once again, to Mohammed.
The 2019 Gatorade Player of the Year poured in eight-straight points for the Blue Jays, including a pair of 3-pointers.
With just under four minutes remaining, Tommy Pinegar’s 3-pointer gave Greenwood its first lead since the opening period at 44-43; however, Hartville quickly recaptured the lead on another Mahan 3-pointer.
With both teams in the bonus during the final minutes, free throws became a priority and set the state for Piper’s late-game heroics.
“Ryce has been a great leader for us,” Reed said. “He’s in the gym shooting every morning when I get there. So, him being at the free throw line, I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Reed also had confidence in his team’s ability to close out on Greenwood’s dangerous shooters, especially in the second half.
While Mohammed led all scorers with 22 points, Hartville’s defense limited Grant Harper and Tommy Pinegar, two of Greenwood’s primary threats from beyond the arc, to a combined three points.
“We knew going in, Aminu’s a very tall task,” Reed said. “It would take a monumental effort just to keep him under his average — I think his average is in the upper 30s — but if we could stop some of the other guys, we felt like we could score enough points to win the game.”
Greenwood ends its season at 26-4.
Up next for 29-2 Hartville is a semifinal round matchup at Springfield’s JQH Arena on Friday, March 13. The Eagles will face Milan for a shot at the Class 2 championship game.
“It means a lot to this group,” Reed said. “It’s what they’ve wanted forever, along with that Blue & Gold championship they won in December. They talked about that all the time; they talked about getting to the final four. Really, they talked about winning a state championship, so we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Class 2 Quarterfinal: Hartville – 49, Greenwood – 47
Hartville 12 11 15 11 — 49
Greenwood 09 12 10 16 — 47
Hartville scoring: Braden Branstetter – 16, Ryce Piper – 9, Brady Ward – 9, Cody Mahan – 8, Holton Simmons – 5, Eli Cook – 2,
Greenwood scoring: Aminu Mohammed – 24, Nicolas Burri – 8, Kaden Stuckey – 6, Ryan Gibbons – 6, Tommy Pinnegar – 3