The Willard Tigers’ second loss of the season - back on Dec. 4 - came at the hands of the Parkview Vikings. On Feb. 28, Willard was a very different basketball team.
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The Tigers kept the Vikings flustered with full-court defensive pressure and held off several runs to earn a 60-51 win in the Class 5, District 12 Championship game, at Parkview.
Willard advances to the Class 5 Sectional in Bolivar, where they’ll play either Nixa or Kickapoo at 6 p.m. March 6.
“At the beginning our team chemistry wasn’t very (good). But as the season went on we built it to the point where we’re all meshed together in one big, happy family,” said Willard junior Chris Kendrix. “That loss hit us pretty hard. (Tonight) was the hardest game we’ve played all year. I’m so excited right now that we won, but I can’t get over-excited because we’ve got to keep playing. This is the greatest feeling right now.”
It’s been quite a turnaround for the Tigers, who were barely above .500 earlier in the year before a change in defensive philosophy spurred a turnaround.
“I really felt my job as the leader and the manager of this ball team was to find something that would make our guys play hard for each other,” said first-year Willard coach Lamont Frazier. “The moment we switched things up defensively, they really took off. It all revolved around trust, and once they got that concept down they’ve been fun to coach.
“We’ve been playing more full-court from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. The guys have thrived on that. It’s created a tempo where we don’t have to go down and try to slug it out. The first time we played (Parkview) we tried to slug it out and they got the best of us. This time around - and since Christmas - we’ve really picked up our tempo and they’ve made strides to be a better team.”
Willard, thanks in part to 10 Parkview turnovers and 15 points from Kendrix, led 27-21 at the break. That lead ballooned to nine points before the Vikings edged back to within 35-31. But then Kolbe Kinghorn took over. The senior post exploded for nine of his 17 points in a span of just 4 minutes and 12 seconds. The burst - which included a thunderous one-handed dunk in traffic - helped Willard carry a 46-37 lead into the fourth quarter.
“Chris was having a lot of pressure and I wanted him to keep his head,” said Kinghorn. “He usually needs to look for somebody when he’s getting double-teamed so much. I was happy to step up for him.”
It was a workmanlike effort by Kinghorn.
“He’s a byproduct of hard work,” said Frazier. “He’s worked his butt off and paid his dues. He comes into the gym when he’s sick. He come into the gym when he’s had very little sleep. He puts in the work.”
With Kansas State coach Bruce Weber in the crowd, Kendrix came up big down the stretch for Willard (18-8). His 3-pointer from the left corner put the Tigers in front by 11 with 3:04 to play, and he answered 4 straight points from Parkview standout Erik Durham with a lay-up to put the game out of reach.
Kendrix finished with a game-high 26.
“Twenty years from now they’re going to talk about the team that once was 7-5, but turned it around,” said Frazier. “For them to come out and play the way they did tonight was phenomenal.”
Durham finished with 25 points to lead the Vikings, who finishes its season 22-6. Reichert and Green, also Parkview seniors, scored 13 and 5 respectively.
“We never could make the right play or get the stop when we needed to,” said Vikings coach Bill Brown. “We made some changes and got close, then they made some adjustments and were able to win. I was really pleased with the kids tonight.”
Durham ends his career with more victories than any other player in Parkview history. He hit the 700-point mark this season, eclipsing Greg Cavener’s school mark, and set the single-game scoring record for the Vikings.
“(They seniors) have all had a tremendous career here at Parkview, all three of them,” said Brown. “They’ve been a joy to coach. “