By Matt Turer // @MattTurer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
WALNUT GROVE, Mo. — Up 14 points with just 4:29 left, Billings seemed primed to cruise home to a big tournament title.
Then life got hard.
Forsyth closed that 14-point gap to five in just over two minutes and then to two with 22 seconds left, but a key missed free throw off an and-one attempt by the Panthers followed by a pair of made free throws by Braden Ray allowed the Wildcats to survive.
Ray added two huge fourth-quarter 3-pointers to go with those free throws, finishing with a game-high 19 points as 4-seed Billings beat 2-seed and defending tournament champion Forsyth 62-59 on Saturday in the Walnut Grove Holiday Classic final.
“It’s a big relief,” Ray said after Billings was able to close out the game with the lead. “That’s a good playing team. They’re knocking down their shots. We just finally had to pull our heads out and we played and got the win.”
Billings (9-4) has now won six straight after a 3-4 start. The sixth win secured the program’s first Walnut Grove tournament title in six tries. The Wildcats had never finished better than fifth in the tournament.
“The guys are starting to buy in,” Billings head coach Kendall Tilley said. “They’re playing well together, moving the ball a little bit and being unselfish. We’ve got a tough conference schedule coming up, and now these guys know they can beat a really good team.”
The wild finish also allowed for a bit of history with thee three-point differential being the closest boys final the tournament has ever seen.
“It’s amazing,” Ray said. “It really is. It’s a big confidence boost and we’re gonna try to take it all the way.”
Trevor Turner, Jon Deroo and Nick Lumley all fouled out for Forsyth (7-4) in the fourth quarter during the Panthers late push, but the Panthers kept battling despite a steadily emptying bench.
“It was a mindset of we’ve got to get after it and make them play faster than they can,” Forsyth head coach Eric Rogers said. “They started making a few turnovers here and there and missed some shots and we just kind of scratched and clawed our way back in it.”
Grant Groves finished with 11 points for Billings and delivered a thunderous jam late in the first half that got a loud crowd out of its seats and sparked a 7-2 Wildcats run.
Billings led 30-20 at the half and by 13 early in the third quarter after holding Forsyth scoreless for the first 4:51 of the second half. But just like they would again in the fourth quarter, the Panthers clawed back within four late in the third.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Tilley said of Forsyth. “They’ve got seven or eight athletes that can just flat-out play. If we could hit a free throw tonight it might not have been quite as close, but fortunately we made a couple at the end.”
Colton Plowman was named tournament MVP, finishing the night with nine points.
BHS // 13 – 17 – 12 – 20 — |62|
FHS // 11 – 9 – 12 – 27 — |59|
Billings- Braden Ray 19, Grant Groves 11, Bobby Brown 9, Colton Plowman 9, Kyler Tennis 9, Hayden Fender 5
Forsyth- Buck Sanders 15, Trevor Turner 12, Dawson Deroo 11, Jon Deroo 7, Nick Lumley 5, Jordan Letterman 4, Jarrett Teel 3, Devyn Barnes 2