By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mountain Grove, Mo. — G.T. Nicholson’s buzzer-beater in early January helped Licking knock Mountain Grove from the undefeated ranks.
During Saturday’s Class 3 District 10 championship, the Panthers got a little payback with a 70-60 victory and a third-straight title.
But it wasn’t easy.
Licking stormed out of the gate with an early, 9-0 advantage.
By the time Mountain Grove scored its first basket, Michael Milhizer, Kaden Quick, Clabe Sullins and Nicholson were all in the Licking box score.
Mountain Grove head coach Duane Hiler talked about keeping calm under duress.
“They were hot and hit everything that went up to start the game,” Hiler said. “It’s just one of those things where you can’t panic, and you can’t get it back in one possession; you’ve got to chip away. You’ve just got to have some composure, because if you panic … you’re done.”
Cade Coffman’s 3-pointer helped the Panthers weather the initial onslaught, but things didn’t balance out until reserve guard Dawson Hiler checked in moments later and started dropping bombs from the perimeter.
“I just wanted to do my job as a role player,” Dawson Hiler said. “Make open shots and guard at a high level.”
The 5-foot-10 junior hit four 3-pointers in the first half, pouring in 14 of his team-high 19 points to lead Mountain Grove’s rally.
“Dawson was the only scorer we had out there, really,” Coach Hiler said. “They were trying to junk it up a little bit, and we subbed him in for Hayden [Newberry]. He got some nice open looks out there and knocked them down.”
A put-back from Dylan Massey early in the second quarter gave Mountain Grove its first lead of the game at 17-16.
The two teams battled back and forth for the next two quarters of play. The Panthers took a 30-27 advantage into the break and finished the third up 48-45.
From there, Mountain Grove finally managed to stretch its lead.
Carter Otwell’s driving layup gave the Panthers a 5-point advantage early in the fourth quarter, and, moments later, found Newberry underneath the basket for a conventional three-point play.
With just over five minutes to play, Mountain Grove’s lead had bloomed to 53-45.
Licking rallied behind Kaden Quick’s sixth 3-pointer of the game; however, missed free throws down the stretch killed any chance at regaining momentum. The Wildcats shot 6-for-11 from the line in the fourth quarter.
In the end, Mountain Grove’s defensive effort made the difference late in the game.
“I thought we finally got some defensive stops,” Coach Hiler said. “We stepped over and stopped the right people, but the Quick kid for them absolutely couldn’t miss. These kids amaze me every time they go out. They rise to every challenge, no stage is too big and nothing seems to phase them.”
Dawson Hiler, Massey and Coffman led the Panthers with 19, 12 and 11 points, respectively. Otwell and Connor McNew each added 9 points.
For Licking, Quick led all scorers in the game with 22 points and was joined in double figures by Nicholson’s 20.
After the game, the Panthers’ 64-62 loss in January — the only blemish on the record — was credited as extra motivation heading into the title matchup.
“That’s who our kids really wanted to play,” Coach Hiler said of Licking. “That’s kind of a storybook ending, and we’re still alive to fight another day. We’ll throw it up on Wednesday and see what happens.”
The district title is Mountain Grove’s third straight, with the previous two seasons ending with trips to the state final four.
Mountain Grove (28-1) now moves on to the sectional round Wednesday, Feb. 28, at Rolla. The Panthers will take on District 9 champion Father Tolton.
Varsity Final: Mountain Grove – 70, Licking – 60
Mt. Grove 12 18 18 22 — 70
Licking 16 11 18 15 — 60
Mountain Grove scoring: Dawson Hiler – 19, Dylan Massey – 12, Cade Coffman – 11, Carter Otwell – 9, Connor McNew – 9, Haden Newberry – 6, Gavin Veach – 4
Licking scoring: Kaden Quick – 22, G.T. Nicholson – 20, James Swan – 8, Michael Milhizer – 4, Clabe Sullins – 4, Gideon Antle – 2