Mt. Vernon, fresh off a state semifinals appearance, entered the game ranked No. 4 in Class 3 in this week’s MBCA/MOsports preseason poll. But playing a game before Thanksgiving was a new experience for Mountaineers coach Skip Brock, and he knew his squad might struggle at times against Fair Grove.
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“I’ve never had a team play before Thanksgiving in my 22 years as a head coach,” Brock said. “I’m not sure if I did a good job preparing us. I’m still learning, even though I’m an old guy, how you do it that quick.”
Brock said the night had more to do with Fair Grove playing well, even though the Eagles were without Jake Maggard and second team all-conference guard Brock Derrick.
Fair Grove senior Deric Link had 27 points (19 in the first half) and teammate Michael Thomas scored 21.
But it was Fair Grove’s inability to get points, from any player, in the final three and a half minutes of the game that made the difference.
After Thomas’ 3-point play got Fair Grove within 55-54 at the 3:29 mark, the Eagles didn’t score again until a meaningless 3-pointer in the final seconds.
“We went away from our motion and went to some sets to try to get our guys shots, and I should’ve just trusted our motion,” said Fair Grove coach Tim Brown. “That’s who we are and who we’re going to be.”
A swooping, reverse layup from senior Shane Williams gave Mt. Vernon a 59-54 lead with less than two minutes to go. Fair Grove then committed a turnover.
Down 60-54 in the final minute, Link missed two contested 3-pointers on the same possession and time would eventually run out on Fair Grove.
“They’ve got a bunch of winners on their team,” Brown said. “They’re not ranked fourth in the state now, and they haven’t gone to state two of the past three years because they’re not tough.
“They cowboy’d up. We call the last four minutes ‘winning time,’ and they were better than us in ‘winning time.’”
Link committed his fourth personal foul a minute into the fourth quarter. With his leading scorer out of the game, Brown elected to run a stalling offense and burn time until Link could re-enter the game.
After holding possession for nearly three minutes, Fair Grove got a jumper from Thomas to cut the Mountaineers’ lead to 52-51 at the 4:19 mark.
Link re-entered the game soon thereafter. But before then, Zane Phillips knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Mountaineers a 55-51 lead.
“We took the clock down as long as they would allow us to,” Brown said. “I don’t know if that took us out of our rhythm offensively or not down the stretch. I’ll take responsibility for that.”
Phillips and sophomore forward Chandler Myers had 20 points apiece for Mt. Vernon.
Link’s hot hand in the first half led Fair Grove to a 35-32 lead at halftime. Brock elected to have his best defender, Williams, guard Link for most of the second half.
“In the first half we tried to guard (Link) one-on-one, and he’s a good player,” Brock said. “We told our kids, ‘You don’t guard anyone one-on-one.’ It’s a team defense.
“Deric went into the post against Shane, which we knew he would, but by doing that I think it helped us defend him better. He was easier to defend posting up than if he was running around the outside and driving to the basket.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for Mt. Vernon, which hosts No. 1-ranked (Class 5) Nixa on Nov. 27. Fair Grove plays in the Strafford Tournament the week of Nov. 26.
“Whenever we scheduled this game, we wanted to play the best,” Brown said. “We could’ve scheduled someone else, but we wanted to play the best in Class 3. I feel really good about where we’re going to be at the end of the season.”
Mt. Vernon 65, Fair Grove 57
Mt. Vernon 18 14 20 13 --- 65
Fair Grove 14 21 14 8 --- 57
Mt. Vernon – Chandler Myers 20, Zane Phillips 20, Shane Williams 12, Luke Call 8, Skylar Phillips 3, Joey Curl 2
Fair Grove – Deric Link 27, Michael Thomas 21, Jayden Happel 5, Dalton Robinson 4