This one is going to sting for a while…especially for Willard and its band of black and silver-clad fans.
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After an intense and drama-filled second-half, Kickapoo escaped with a controversial 31-30 victory over Willard to capture the Class 5 boys basketball Sectional Wednesday night at Southwest Baptist University. The win advances Kickapoo to within a game of the Chiefs’ first Final Four since 2006, as Kickapoo will face Columbia Hickman (25-2) Saturday at 6:00 p.m. in the state quarterfinals at the O’Reilly Family Events Center at Drury.
This one will be long remembered by the packed house of fans for both teams, though. After both teams used frequent zone defenses in the first-half, which in turn resulted in deliberate offensive possessions, the Chiefs took a 15-11 lead to the locker room at halftime. Willard came out in the third quarter, though, and quickly took the lead. The Chiefs and Tigers would trade the lead back and forth over the final two periods.
After Willard’s Kolbe Kinghorn hit a lay-up with 3:24 left in the game, the Tigers led 30-27. Willard would not score again.
Kickapoo’s Chris Ward hit a contested basket down low with 3:07 to play to pull the Chiefs within one at 30-29. The Chiefs promptly stole the inbounds pass and were poised to regain the lead, but sophomore Jack Simpson’s shot was blocked by Willard’s junior standout Chris Kendrix.
Willard gained possession and ran time off the clock. After a pair of timeouts, the Tigers inbounded the ball with 1:37 to play. After a steal, Ward was fouled on the other end and went to the line with 37.3 seconds remaining. Ward missed both free throws, but Simpson’s hustle on the ensuing rebound gave Kickapoo another possession.
Ward missed a contested shot down in the paint, and Kendrix rebounded, with the Tigers clinging to a 30-29 lead. Following another Willard timeout, Kickapoo’s Tyler Bussell stepped in front of a pass on the right sideline and was fouled with 21.2 seconds to play.
“The plan coming out of the timeout was to foul, but I just read it and made a play,” said Bussell, who hit the first free throw to tie the game at 30, but missed the second. A Willard rebound set-up a frantic final few seconds.
After yet another Willard timeout, Willard’s Cainen McGinnis drove into the lane and put up a shot that nearly dropped. However, the ball came off the rim and in the ensuing scrum, Kinghorn was whistled for a foul after he wound up on Simpson’s back going for the loose ball. There was .6 left on the clock.
Simpson calmly sank the first free throw to put Kickapoo in front 31-30 and missed the second free throw intentionally. The Chiefs escaped with a hard fought, nail biting win over Willard, a team that Kickapoo defeated 67-45 back on Jan. 25 in the Nixa Invitational.
“It was a great game, maybe not the prettiest thing around, but our guys found a way and grinded it out,” said Kickapoo head coach Dick Rippee. “We’ve done that a number of times this year. We made a couple of key stops down the stretch, including that last 10 seconds, a big stop. Jack got fouled and then stepped up in an intense, pressure-packed situation, just did a great job. That’s kind of what we expect from him. He didn’t lose his cool, and for a sophomore, that’s pretty special.”
“It was a fun game,” said a subdued Lamont Frazier, who finished his first season at the helm at Willard at 17-9 with the loss. “It’s just one of those games where it came down to possessions and they had the last possession. Whether it was for us or for them, I hated for it to end that way, but it did, so what do you do? One team goes home and one team moves on. Someone had to win, someone had to lose. At this point, that’s about as well as I can put it.”
Points were at a premium for both teams in the low-scoring affair. Ward, who was saddled with four fouls throughout the final quarter, led Kickapoo with 11 points, while fellow senior Bussell added 10. Kendrix led Willard with 10.
“I think you had two teams pretty well prepared,” said Rippee. “We zoned them last time (in January) and kind of tried to tag Chris Kendrix, so we did that again, but they were well prepared. I thought they did a great job of dictating tempo, and also a great job of taking us out of our rhythm. I don’t think we got in a very good rhythm, and obviously they did a great job on Chris (Ward) inside.
“There’s a couple things we’ve got to work on,” added Rippee, looking ahead to Saturday’s state quarterfinal. “They exposed some things that we got to get better at. We’re just fortunate to advance tonight.”
Simpson had prepared for the moment he faced at the end of the game, even if he had never actually been in that scenario before.
“Honestly, I’ve never been in that situation before, but it’s something you dream about when you go to the gym,” said Simpson, one of several sophomores who are key contributors for the Chiefs. “I shoot probably 50 to 100 free throws in practice, so I just tried to shoot like I do in practice. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
Willard will miss Kinghorn down low, and graduate two other seniors, but should return virtually intact next season. The Tigers will likely be one of the area favorites to make a deep run next March, but that’s irrelevant in the aftermath of the heartbreaking loss to Kickapoo.
“They fought the battles,” said Frazier of his Tigers this season. “They did everything they were supposed to do to give themselves a chance, so my hat goes off to them. I know our kids really wanted this for our city, for our school and for our little community. Our city is still behind these kids 100 percent. They never wavered. They believed in them. I think the kids felt as though they were carrying not just a basketball team but a community. They were playing for something other than just themselves, and I think that’s why you saw the performance tonight and the performances in the past month or so that you’ve seen.”
For Kickapoo, a team with a rich hardwood tradition that includes a state championship and three trips to the Final Four in the past decade, there is one more game to go to get back to Columbia.