By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Springfield, Mo. — Late free throws matter.
Just ask Belleville West.
Despite scoring a single basket in the fourth quarter, the Maroons were able to hold on and defeat Springfield Catholic 63-57 in the Tournament of Champions consolation bracket.
Four different Belleville players combined to convert 12 of 16 free throws in the final frame.
After Catholic tied the game at 52-52 midway through the fourth quarter on a Jake Branham breakaway layup, Maroons head coach Joe Muniz called timeout and urged his team to maintain its composure.
“I told our kids we’ve been in these situations for a long time,” Muniz said. “We’ve always found a way to win, and we just got to dig deep and find a way to win — and these kids made winning plays tonight. We didn’t play great but when we had to, we stepped up.”
Branham led all scorers with 24 points for the Irish, who bounced back from a 75-42 defeat at the hands of the nation’s No. 2 team in McEachern (Ga.).
After the game, the 6-foot-2 senior talked about shifting gears quickly after the previous night’s struggles.
“Coach told us to forget about last night,” Branham said. “We all had a mindset that we were going to come out today and play hard and give it our best shot, so I guess easier to bounce back then what people expected.”
Catholic found itself in trouble early on after Belleville raced out to an early, 10-1 lead.
After scoring the first Irish basket nearly three minutes in, Branham and teammates were finally able to settle in and start clawing their way back into the game.
Mike Manzardo and Zach Howell added 8 points, each, for Catholic.
“We just focused in on defense and just really attacked and believed in each other,” Branham said. “We weren’t hitting the first few minutes, and then we attack started hitting and just went from there. We knew that we could do it, and it’s just nice to be able to show Springfield that we can do it.”
Midway through the second quarter, a Branham 3-pointer tied the score at 17-17; however, Belleville was able to recapture and stretch its lead thanks to a 10-2 run to close out the half.
With 6-foot-8 standout E.J. Liddell struggling with foul problems and a pesky Catholic zone, teammate Lawrence Brazil stepped up to shoulder the Maroons scoring load.
Brazil scored 17 of his team-high 21 points in the first half and, at one point, carried the Belleville offense with nine-straight.
Liddell fouled out with three minutes remaining and Belleville nursing a 56-52 lead. The Ohio State signee talked about adjusting to the way games have flowed in the ToC and the importance of team basketball.
“I’m an aggressive player,” Liddell said. “I guess, this tournament, they’re calling really close — everything. It’s tough to get into a rhythm, and the guys around me stepped up tonight. When I’m not in a game, these guys know what to do and how to win a game.”
Brazil was joined in double figures by Will Shumpert’s 10 points for the Maroons.
For Catholic head coach Dustin Larsen, the game represented yet another opportunity to challenge the Class 3 No. 2 Irish (16-2). Both of Catholic’s losses this season have been in the ToC.
Larsen praised Branham’s high-energy play and its effect on the rest of the squad.
“The energy (Branham) was playing with tonight, I think it really you brought alive our whole group,” Larsen said. “They all just feed off each other when they when they play like that, and that’s when it’s really fun to watch.”
Catholic shot 5-20 from the perimeter and 20-48 for the game. The Irish also converted 12 of 18 attempts from the free throw line.
Varsity Final: Belleville East – 63, Springfield Catholic – 57
Belleville 15 19 15 14 — 63
Catholic 10 14 20 13 — 57
Belleville scoring: Lawrence Brazil III – 21, Will Shumpert – 10, Keith Randolph – 9, Jaylin Mosby – 9, E.J. Liddell – 7, Tommie Williams – 5, Marcellus Romious – 2
Catholic scoring: Jake Branham – 24, Mike Manzardo – 8, Zach Howell – 8, Charlie O’Reilly – 5, Wallace Squibb – 4, Will Morrison – 3, Tyson Riley – 3, Ben Galligos – 2