By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mountain Grove, Mo. — Somehow, Duane Hiler’s teams always seem to respond during the postseason.
Despite a 12-12 record and No. 3 seed in the bracket, Mountain Grove secured its fourth-straight district title Saturday night with a wire-to-wire, 59-54 victory over No. 1 seed Licking.
The Panthers were led by 17 points from Dylan Massey, and teammates Dawson Hiler and John Felker each added 16 points in the Class 3 District 2 championship win.
Mountain Grove jumped out with a 13-5 opening run in the first quarter. Bryce Lauderdale proved to be the hot hand early, connecting on a pair of 3-pointers during the stretch.
For Coach Hiler, the first-quarter burst was vital, as it allowed Mountain Grove to control the game from the opening tip.
“Probably the most important time in the game is the first four minutes,” Hiler said. “If you can take the lead, you can dictate, and the game’s different from when you’re ahead than when you’re trying to climb back in it.”
The Panthers led by as many as 16 points late in the second quarter, with the Massey-Hiler-Felker trio combining for 25 of the team’s 33 first-half points.
A key factor for Mountain Grove was its defense against Liking’s potent front line, featuring standout G.T. Nicholson.
Long and athletic at 6-foot-7, Nicholson is a matchup nightmare for opponents, particularly with perimeter threat Kaden Quick helping keep defenses honest.
Hiler discussed the difficult task of slowing down the Wildcat attack, particularly with Nicholson’s effectiveness.
“We didn’t guard him with one, we guarded with two or three,” Hiler said. “We dropped a bunch and doubled a bunch and just hoped that we could contain them outside. We couldn’t let the Quick kid get loose outside because he’s deadly.”
Nicholson finished with 16 points to lead the Wildcats.
In the second, Licking’s foul count began to quickly mount. With just under a minute left in the third period, the Wildcats found themselves down by double digits and their opponents in a double-bonus situation.
Worse yet, a trio of Wildcats were saddled with four fouls each in Wilson Murray, Connor Medlock and Nicholson.
Massey’s aggressive play in the interior was a key factor in the stoppages, which didn’t surprise Hiler or the Panthers.
“He’s done that all year,” Hiler said. “He averages probably 13 rebounds a game and, offensively, he’s so long and athletic that he’s hard to guard. If he gets you on the corner you you more or less have to foul to stop him.”
All three Wildcat starters would foul out in the fourth period, leaving Licking head coach Ben Glasgow a bit hamstrung.
“That was the whole game,” Glasgow said. “31 free throws to 12. I fouled three starters out, and that was the difference in the whole game right there — the fact we didn’t get to play our players very much.”
Despite its foul-plagued lineup, Licking made a furious run late in the fourth behind a slew of baskets from Nicholson and Murray
Back-to-back scores from Nicholson at the 2:26 mark trimmed the Mountain Grove lead to just three points at 51-48, completing a 19-6 Licking run in the final period.
While the Wildcats carried all the momentum late, a pair of Massey steals in the final minute helped thwart the rally and seal the victory for Mountain Grove.
After falling to Licking during the regular season, Massey and the Panthers weren’t about to be denied a second time in the title matchup.
“We just came prepared,” Massey said. “We played them once before, and they got the best of us, but we knew we had to come in and do and we did … we just executed better. Their half-court press is really great — caught us by surprise — but then we calmed down and knew what we needed to do, and we just came out and did it.”
After the game, Glasgow reflected on his team’s season.
“It’s a tough way to lose, because one game doesn’t diminish what they’ve accomplished over a career,” Glasgow said. “Mountain Grove played really well, hit a lot of shots and when the team does that on any given night, you can get beat.”
Class 3 District 2 Championship: Mountain Grove – 59, Licking – 54
Mountain Grove 17 16 11 15 — 59
Licking 13 08 10 23 — 54
Mountain Grove scoring: Dylan Massey – 17, Dawson Hiler – 16, John Felker – 16, Bryce Lauderdale – 8, Gavin Vaughan 2
Licking scoring: G.T. Nicholson – 16, Wilson Murray – 12, Kaden Quick – 9, James Swan – 8, Michael Milhizer – 4, Connor Medlock – 3, Kaleb Keaton – 2