The two-time defending champion Nixa Eagles were a heavy favorite coming in taking on the seventh-seeded Ozark Tigers on Saturday, but when these two Christian County rivals meet, past returns mean nothing.
"Nixa-Ozark games, it doesn't matter what sport, it doesn't matter where it’s played (and) it doesn't matter what the records are, it is going to be a battle," Nixa head coach Jay Osborne said. "I got tired of people telling me today that we were going to win by 20."
Nixa found out right away what kind of fight the Tigers would present. The Eagles jumped out to a 17-10 lead after one quarter, but the Tigers didn’t fold and cut that lead to four points at 28-24 at the half.
Ozark’s defensive strategy gave the Eagles fits all night.
"They did a great job mixing up the defenses and it obviously affected us tonight," Nixa star and Missouri State commit Austin Ruder said.
That strategy was paramount in attempting to slow down the talented Eagles.
"(We) mixed it up a lot (defensively). We had to. They have a lot of weapons over there," Ozark head coach Steve Hunter said.
The defensive strategy worked, but the Tigers would ultimately be doomed by foul trouble.
Ozark tied the game at 47 with 4:30 left, but that was when second-leading scorer Tyler Clanton and his 12 points fouled out.
Two and a half minute later, Ozark’s key cog in the middle Brett Krisik went out with his fifth foul and took his team-high 14 points with him.
That would prove to be the final blow.
"It (Krisik fouling out) was big," Ruder said. "Once he went out we definitely felt a lot more confident."
Ruder was able to ice the game away in the fourth with stellar free throw shooting.
"He (Ruder) is a gamer. He rises to the occasion," Osborne said. "He thrives on this type of atmosphere.”
Nixa would win by a final of 61-55 to take its third consecutive title in the Blue and Gold.
Even though it wasn’t the most elegant of wins, the history wasn’t lost on Osborne.
"My dad told me a long time ago that ugly wins are better than pretty losses any day," Osborne said. "Three in a row is pretty special. Not many teams have done that.”
Ruder scored a game-high 18 points to lead Nixa. Jalen Norman was the only other Eagle in double figures with 11.
For Ozark, the run to the title game was a chance to improve as a team for the stretch run.
"We grew up a little bit over the four days," Hunter said. "From three days ago to now, I am so proud of them for what they just did. I'm never satisfied or content because that is just the way we coaches are, but at the same time I am very pleased with where we are at right now."