Fair Play entered this season with something to prove after being upset by Climax Springs in the district title game a year ago. The Hornets have been ranked at or near the top of Class 1 all season long, and have consistently proven throughout the winter that they would be a force to be reckoned with come late February and early March.
On Wednesday night, that firepower was on full display at Southwest Baptist University, as Fair Play used a smothering full court pressure defense and up tempo attack to smother Macks Creek in a 66-53 sectional victory. The win sends the Hornets to Clinton High School on Saturday for the state quarterfinals. Fair Play will face the winner of Drexel and Pilot Grove, which play Thursday night.
“It’s always a big win when you win this time of year, because you’re moving on,” said Hornets’ head coach Lynn Long. “It’s over if you don’t win. I didn’t think we played as well as we could have tonight. We did some things where we played hard in spurts, but not always as hard as we need to. But they have a good team. They have a couple of really tough players. We did enough to get the job done.”
Fair Play got off to a blistering start by scoring 20 points in the first quarter, en route to a 33-20 lead at halftime. A couple of key defensive stands late in the first period helped break the game open.
"I thought we played pretty good for a large part of the game,” said Macks Creek head coach Brad Briscoe. “There were two spurts in there at the end of the first quarter where their pressure really got to us. We had three or four turnovers right in a row that they converted into easy baskets and kind of built that 8- to 10-point lead.”
The Pirates were hanging around late in the third quarter when Fair Play’s senior standout Lance Schaffer made a couple of “did that just happen?” plays within seconds for the Hornets, both of which were backbreakers. First, Schaffer sank a three-pointer from the right corner as he was falling out of bounds. Then, following a Fair Play steal on the ensuing possession Schaffer hit another three-pointer from just right of the top of the key with a pair of Pirates draped all over him. Those two daggers staked Fair Play to a 48-33 lead after three quarters.
“We kept chipping away and then Schaffer threw in that three-pointer in the corner and then went back-to back and hit another one,” said Briscoe. “He’s a heckuva player. It was just hard to recover from those two instances. I was pretty pleased with the effort. We kind of had the big eyes coming in here. We’re a very young team overall. You can’t put a price on the experience we gained. Hopefully, that will produce fruit in the future.”
“We want to press, but it’s mostly man-to-man,” said Long of the Hornets’ game plan. “We don’t really do a good job of trapping and intercepting passes sometimes, but we wear teams down, we make them work and stuff like that, and then they’ll get tired and turn it over a little bit.
“They handled it pretty well,” added Long. “They had a couple of spurts where they turned it over and I think we may have gotten them tired a little bit, possibly, I don’t know. That’s kind of the way we play, we get after it. We want to play fast on offense and put pressure on defense. If we can get teams to play our speed, I think in the long run, it pays off for us.”
The payoff for the Hornets is a trip to the state quarterfinals, where Fair Play will look to return to the Class 1 Final Four for the first time since 2008.
“I didn’t think we showed what we can do, so I think Drexel and Pilot Grove were probably here watching tonight, so whoever we have to play next round, they didn’t…we can probably play better than we did tonight, I’m hoping.
“We’re just happy to move on at this time of year,” said Long. “We’ll talk about what we didn’t do well and what we did do well and hopefully we can build on that. Our kids really want to go on and want to play well, so I think we’ll respond on Saturday afternoon.”
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Schaffer, who led Fair Play with 19 points, had an “off” night. Schaffer has scored 19 points in two other games this season, and has put up 20 or more in every other game, hence the “off” night. Fair Play had a very balanced scoring attack, though, with Jalen Wakefield scoring 13, Brody Wicklund adding 12, and Zac Murphy scoring 10 points.
Mack’s Creek was led in scoring by Cody Eidson, who announced his presence to many Southwest Missouri basketball fans by dropping 29 points on the Hornets, while swatting several shots on the defensive end. Eidson is part of the Pirates’ youth brigade, as Macks Creek will return fully intact next season after capturing the school’s first district championship in 20 years.
“We’re very proud of the things we accomplished this year, especially to not have a senior on the entire team, and to have a bunch of young guys that only won eight games last year,” said Briscoe. “We really started playing our best ball down the stretch, really kind of got in a groove there, started guarding better, and executing better on the offensive end. It’s been 20 years since we’ve had a district championship at Macks Creek. I’m proud of what we’ve done and chomping at the bit for the future.”
One more win and it’s off to Columbia for Fair Play. “We’re happy to still be playing,” said Long. “It’s going to be tough Saturday. We’re gonna have to really be ready to play. I think we’ve got a better game in us than we had tonight. If we can get out and play our game, we’ll take our chances.”