By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Class 3 enrollment, Class 5 heart and toughness.
The Mountain Grove Panthers captured their first Blue and Gold Championship in program history Friday night, out-toughing the Class 5 Nixa Eagles 68-65 in the Blue Division title game at JQH Arena.
Even for a program that went to the state final four in 2016 and 2017, this one’s special.
“Kind of hard to believe, isn’t it?” said Mountain Grove coach Duane Hiler. “It’s a true testament to those kids. They’re so tough. Every time I think they can’t do something, they prove me wrong. It was a heck of a ball game.”
Cade Coffman, the tournament’s unofficial MVP, finished with 21 points and (unofficially) 10 rebounds.
He averaged 25 points per game in this year’s tournament. Only 31 other players in Blue and Gold History have averaged 25 or more points in one tournament (minimum three games played).
Teammates Dylan Massey (18 points, 9 rebounds) and Connor McNew (16 points) also had key contributions. Massey was a big factor on the offensive glass in the second half, as the Panthers took the fight to Nixa to maintain their lead.
“They pretty much had their way with us on the offensive glass in the second half,” said Nixa coach Jay Osborne. “I don’t know how many put-backs they had, but it was plenty.”
Massey went 2-for-4 at the free throw line in the final 30 seconds, giving Nixa a chance to tie the game at the end. The Eagles missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds.
“I thought the last shot was in,” Hiler said. “It really looked good all the way. We had the right kids at the (free throw) line, and we’ll live and die with them. I have a lot of faith in those kids.”
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Despite his teammates joking otherwise, Massey, while laughing, said: “I didn’t mean to miss the free throws at the end. But I made the ones I needed to and it all worked out.”
Nixa made five of its first eight 3-point attempts to build a 17-14 lead after one quarter. The Eagles’ perimeter shooting kept them within striking distance of a Mtn. Grove team that led the majority of the second half, including by eight late in the third quarter.
“It seemed like every time we got a lead, they hit a 3,” Hiler said.
Braeden Combs led Nixa with 20 points. Senior Max Bilbrey had 12 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
The overall shooting percentages for Nixa (25-for-49) and Mtn. Grove (25-for-52) were nearly identical. Nixa even made six more 3-point attempts than Mtn. Grove.
The difference came at the free throw line, where Mtn. Grove was 15-for-25 at the free throw line compared to Nixa’s 6-for-9 output.
“I thought defensively, for the most part, we did a pretty good job on them,” Osborne said. “They didn’t beat us by the 3, we took away the 3 and they’re dangerous there. They beat us on the glass and the free throw line.”
Mtn. Grove improved to 11-0 overall. The Panthers will take aim at another (undefeated) SCA title and a deep run in the Class 3 postseason, with the likes of Catholic, Licking, Strafford, Mt. Vernon and others standing in the way.
“We kind of come in to this tournament as an underdog usually, being a Class 3 school against teams like Kickapoo and Nixa,” Massey said. “People, I think, kind of overlook us.
“We just try to prove them wrong.”
And that includes their head coach.
“I told them, ‘You guys just keep proving me wrong,’” Hiler said. “I’m OK if they keep doing that. They’re the ones that did it and they’re the ones that need to enjoy it.”
Mtn. Grove 68, Nixa 65
Mtn. Grove 14 18 18 18 — 68
Nixa 17 17 13 18 — 65
Mtn. Grove – Cade Coffman 21, Dylan Massey 18, Connor McNew 16, Carter Otwell 7, Heyden Newberry 6
Nixa – Braeden Combs 20, Max Bilbrey 12, Kaleb Wofford 10, Drew Canady 9, Nathan Elmer 7, Luke Roemen 4, Jack Sanders 3