By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
After grinding out a first half that ended in a 14-all tie, West Plains boys basketball coach Shane Benson saw a different team emerge from the locker room after the break.
Was it the halftime speech? Benson chuckled.
“No, I have no idea,” he said. “I wish I did know. I just thought for whatever reason we came out with a lot more energy and got our hands on some balls and got the game going up and down a little bit. We played a little bit more relaxed. Just played better the second half offensively.”
The Zizzers went on to defeat Mt. Vernon 44-33 on Wednesday in a blue division first-round game during the 73rd Annual Blue & Gold Tournament inside the Hammons Student Center in Springfield.
West Plains, 7-2, led 10-8 after a quarter of play and managed just two field goals in the second. Both of those came from sophomore Taylor Harrison, who scored with 1:23 left in the half to tie the game at 14.
“We have trouble scoring anyways, so it wasn’t a real unusual game,” Benson said. “Fourteen is a little bit glow for us but we’re not going to put up a whole lot of points. I thought the second half we had a lot more energy and played a lot better.”
Mt. Vernon sophomore Mason Ballay made a three pointer early in the third quarter to give the Mountaineers a lead. It lasted for about a minute.
Junior Allen Marcak put the Zizzers ahead 21-17 later in the third. Ballay answered with another three pointer, but Swope made two free throws and then the Mountaineers came up empty on five-straight possessions. Mt. Vernon committed five turnovers in the the third quarter.
West Plains’ Daegan Green added a three pointer with 1:31 left in the third to extend the lead to six, and Marcak’s steal and layup in the final minute made it 28-22.
Three pointers by Ballay and junior Slater Eldridge kept Mt. Vernon within striking distance in the fourth, but the Zizzers made seven-straight free throws – and nine of 10 overall – in the final minutes.
For the game, West Plains made 14-of-16 free throws, good for 87.5 percent.
“That’s something we haven’t done well all year but we’re getting better at it,” Benson said. “Hopefully that will continue.”
“We had a couple turnovers there,” Mt. Vernon coach Mike Ray said. “They got some points in transition that helped them get some momentum. We had a couple good looks that just didn’t fall for us. A combination of those two things put us behind the eight ball there at the end.”
Marcak led West Plains with 13 points, including a 4-for-4 effort from the free throw line in the fourth. Swope added nine.
“I thought Allen Marcak really played a good game,” Benson said. “I thought he played the best game for us this year. He really caused a lot of disruption out there in the front and got his hands on a lot of balls which led to some easy points.”
Mt. Vernon fell to 5-5 with the loss. Ballay led the Mountaineers with 16 points and senior Kelly Vaughn added 10.
“I thought all of our kids played hard,” Ray said. “Shots were hard to come by, getting them to fall. Mason Ballay shot the ball pretty well for us and showed some toughness there. I thought Kelly Vaughn did a good job late in the game getting in the lane and showing the senior leadership. I thought Zach Jones and Rafe Darter did a good job on post defense. I know Cale Miller struggled a little bit making shots but he had some great passes, hit the open man and unfortunately the shots didn’t fall for us.”
Fourth-seeded West Plains will face fifth-seeded Hartville at 11 a.m. Thursday at JQH Arena in the quarterfinals. Hartville won 66-35 against Spokane on Wednesday. Mt. Vernon and Spokane will play at 11 a.m. at the Hammons Student Center.