The Nixa Eagles lived to play another day while welcoming back a key piece for a potential postseason run.
Nixa edged Ozark 61-56 in the Class 5, District 11 semifinals on Thursday night. The Eagles saw the return of senior forward Jalen Norman, who hadn’t played since suffering a knee injury in the team’s Tournament of Champions opener Jan. 17.
“We knew it was going to be a battle coming in here,” said senior Austin Ruder, who became Nixa’s all-time career scoring leader in the game. “We were wishing it wouldn’t be that close, but it’s good for all the fans that it was that close, and good for us that we came out with a close victory in the postseason.”
The Eagles led for most of the second half, including by 10 points early in the fourth quarter. Ozark fought back, cutting Nixa’s lead to 56-54 with a minute to play.
Ozark had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but Jakob Neidig’s 3-pointer was off the mark and Chan Hocklander grabbed the rebound.
Hocklander hit two free throws with .9 seconds on the clock to send Nixa to the district title game this Saturday night. The Eagles face Kickapoo at Branson High School at 7 p.m.
Norman’s emergence onto the court for pregame warmups drew a standing ovation from the Nixa student section and fans. Norman came off the bench three minutes into the first quarter and scored near the basket on his first touch.
He also got a key layup that put Nixa back up by four points with less than two minutes remaining after Nick Cookinham’s 3-pointer had put Ozark within 54-52.
Nixa coach Jay Osborne said he decided to give Norman his first playing time in a month and a half after watching him practice Wednesday.
“Give (Norman) credit for rehabbing as hard as he has,” Osborne said. “I thought he made a good contribution in about 10 minutes of play, whatever he played. He gives us an athlete out there. He’s a presence around the goal. I thought having him back gave us a little lift.”
Jacob Ruder hit two free throws with one minute left to put the Eagles up 58-54. Ozark then committed a turnover, but Nixa followed by missing the front end of a one-and-one.
Neidig hit a runner in the lane to make it 58-56. Bryce Dulin made one of two free throws to extend Nixa’s lead to 59-56 before Neidig’s 3-pointer was no good near the end.
“We felt like we did a good job of executing, we just had a couple of trips where we didn’t come out with anything positive,” said Ozark coach Steve Hunter. “But I’m proud of our kids overall.”
Cookinham led all players with 19 points, including three treys in the first quarter.
Austin Ruder scored 17 for Nixa. The future Missouri State Bear entered the game needing 12 points to break Kent Russell’s mark of 1,685 set in 1978. Austin Ruder broke the record on mid-range jumper with two minutes to go in the third quarter.
“I’m glad I could break it tonight and definitely ease some pressure for the next game,” Austin Ruder said.
Nixa and Ozark had already played twice this season, with the Tigers winning at home 74-68 on Feb. 12. Hunter said the difference in Thursday night’s game might’ve been the return of Nixa sophomore post player Jacob Ruder, who sat out the Feb. 12 game with a shoulder injury.
“I think they’re ability to go inside with Jacob this time, last time they didn’t have him, I think that was a big part of the outcome of the game,” Hunter said. “We were trying to double down on him and when we did, they hit a couple of 3s on kick-outs.”
Ozark ends its season 16-12 overall. The winner of the Kickapoo-Nixa district title game will play Willard in the sectional round on March 6 at SBU in Bolivar.
Ozark 15 11 12 18 --- 56
Nixa 10 17 17 17 --- 61
Ozark – Nick Cookinham 19, Brett Krisik 12, Jakob Neidig 8, Tyler Clanton 8, Noah Nelson 5, Korbin Evans 4
Nixa – Austin Ruder 17, Jacob Ruder 14, Bryce Dulin 12, Carney Wilmes 8, Chan Hocklander 4, Jalen Norman 4, Wes Middleton 2