It didn’t come easy, but Strafford captured another Mid-Lakes Conference championship with a hard fought 59-48 victory over arch-rival Fair Grove in front of a frenzied and raucous crowd Friday night at Fair Grove. The win also marked Indian head coach Mike Wilson’s 400th career victory, as Strafford finished unbeaten in conference play for the fourth consecutive season.
CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS
Fair Grove seemed to be in control in the first-half, as the host Eagles led 23-14 late in the second quarter. However, Strafford closed the half with a pair of three-pointers from Brady Collier and Brandon Foley to cut the deficit to 23-20 at the break.
“I thought our kids really came out and competed,” said Fair Grove head coach Tim Brown. “I felt like we had a chance to stretch our lead in the first half a little further. We got a little trigger happy in that run, and sometimes that happens when you get a lead and things are going good. But we didn’t really execute to finish the half, and that kind of carried over into the second half.”
The Indians came out of the locker room on fire, and immediately took a 29-25 lead just over two minutes into the third quarter. From there, the teams traded baskets, as the packed house roared with each successful play. Strafford got a lay-up off a set play just before the horn ending the third quarter, and took a 37-35 lead to the final period.
“Our defense has been key,” said Wilson of the Indians’ strength. “We guarded the three-point line pretty well tonight. They can shoot it and they shoot it well. They didn’t get very many just wide open looks, and then we hit the boards better there late. We got a couple offensive rebounds and a couple put backs, and that kind of spread things out a little bit.”
With eight minutes to determine a Mid-Lakes champion, Strafford seized control early in the final quarter. Fair Grove senior Brock Derrick, who along with fellow classmates Talon Bates, Deric Link and Michael Thomas was playing in his final home game, hit a three pointer to cut the Indians’ lead to one at the 5:11 mark. However, Strafford’s standout junior big man Jacob Wade answered with a three-pointer at the other end to push the Strafford lead to 45-41 with 4:52 to play.
Moments later, a three-point play by Strafford’s Blake Alexander gave the Indians’ their largest lead of the second-half at 48-41. That was the dagger, as Fair Grove was never able to seriously threaten the rest of the way, as Strafford earned yet another Mid-Lakes Conference title.
Wade led Strafford with 16 points, while Alexander added 12 and Collier 11. Link led Fair Grove with 14 points, while Thomas added 13 and Derrick had 8.
“That’s one of our goals,” said Wilson of the conference title. “Our biggest goal is to win Districts, and that starts next week, but our number two one is to win conference. This is our fourth year in a row without losing a game in conference. We get a little spoiled, I’m a little spoiled, but every one of them feels good. I hate to say this, because I love Timmy and his guys to death, but if you can do it at Fair Grove…I’ve had some bad losses here over my career, so to get it here is good.”
“I was really proud of our guys’ effort,” said Brown of his Eagles. “I knew our guys weren’t scared of this game. There were conference championship implications, and Strafford’s had a fantastic season. It’s a Fair Grove-Strafford game, so you know you’re going to get the best effort from the fans, and coaches and players.”
“You can only play with fire for so long,” added Brown. “We didn’t execute well in the second-half. We kept shooting it quick. We came out of timeouts and didn’t stick to our game plan on the defensive end and allowed them to make some easy shots. We had a scheme defensively, just like offensively, and I felt like we strayed away from our defensive schemes. That’s something that we got to be accountable for, but like I said, our effort was great. We kind of did our own thing a few times on the defensive end a bit, but besides that, it’s all correctable stuff.”
Maybe it was the conference championship on the line, or maybe it was the fact that these two schools are only about 12 miles apart. Regardless, the noise and tension in the gym was akin to a District championship atmosphere.
“The atmosphere in here was like a District championship game,” agreed Wilson. “The gym was packed. It was packed and both teams had fans yelling and screaming. A game like that will get you ready to go, so hopefully we’ll come out and be ready to go.”
These two teams could be on a collision course for a rematch next week. However, if they do meet, it would be for a District championship, as the Eagles and Indians are on opposite sides of the Class 3 District 11 bracket, which will be hosted by Hollister. Top-seeded Strafford will face Forsyth Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. in first round action, while Fair Grove will play Conway in the nightcap at 8:30.
“It’s always tough playing Fair Grove,” said Wade. “It means a lot. It’s undefeated in the conference, I think four years straight, plus Coach’s 400th win, so that really means a lot to us. Right now, there is no momentum because we’re 0-0. If we lose, we’re done. We just got to start up tomorrow and get ready for Forsyth, which is who we’ve got on Tuesday.”
Both coaches feel good about their team’s chances in the District tournament next week.
“We feel real good about where we are going into this District tournament,” said Brown. “We know it’s going to be very difficult next week, but I like our team, I like our guys, and I know they’re not scared and they’re not going to back down from anyone.”
“We’re getting better,” said Wilson of his youthful Indians, who have only three seniors on the roster. “We’re growing up and maturing a little bit. We had a turnover or two there, but we guarded. We’re not having as many breakdowns as we did earlier in the year. In the second quarter, we kind of struggled and we took some bad shots, got to standing around, but we weren’t turning the ball over. We guarded and we played hard. We’re growing up and we’ve got a bunch of young ones that need to.”
In the locker room following the game, Coach Wilson clutched a plaque commemorating his 400th victory.
“That just means that I’m old,” said Wilson of the milestone. “400 is a big milestone for me. It means I’ve had a lot of good kids.”
Wilson will be looking to up that total to 403 next week, as it will take three victories to capture another District championship.