By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ozark, Mo. — With 35 fouls in the second half, it’s no surprise Tuesday’s annual rivalry clash between Ozark and Nixa turned into a free-throw shooting display.
On a night where both teams combined for a whopping 74 free throw attempts, Ozark held off a late Nixa rally to win 84-79.
For Tigers head coach Mark Schweitzer, a big key was getting his team adjusted to the tightly-officiated game and chaotic atmosphere.
“Officials are always right, because they manage the game,” Schweitzer said. “Whether it’s right or wrong in your brain, it doesn’t matter — to the game, it’s right. So, we just keep telling our kids, and they’ve got to keep playing.”
Led by Ethan Whatley’s 17 points, Ozark had three other players finish in double figures including A.J. Elliott (15), Alonzo Riwa (15) and Kyle Flavin (10).
Ozark held a 27-23 lead at the half before a big run midway through the third quarter stretched its lead to as many as 17 points.
Schweitzer attributed the 24-point quarter to his team’s focus on getting into the lane and attacking the basket.
“I thought we did a good job of really concentrating on attacking the rim and not settling for outside shots,” Schweitzer said. “They went zone, and it’s really easy to settle for outside shots, because that’s what they’re giving up.”
After a slow start in the first half, Elliott was particularly effective in the third. The 6-foot-5 senior repeatedly attacked the basket, finishing with 9 of his 15 points in the quarter.
“A.J. was huge in the third quarter for us,” Schweitzer said. “That’s where he got the bulk of his scoring. In the first half, he was focusing on whether or not he was getting hit. We just told him at halftime, ‘You can’t control that. What you can control is gathering yourself and getting to the rim,’ and he did a good job of doing that in the third quarter, and I thought that was a big difference.”
While Ozark led 51-35 at the end of three, Nixa — and Josh Mason — weren’t about to concede.
Mason started off the fourth quarter with a quick basket, and then connected on a pair of 3-pointers.
In roughly 90 seconds of work, the 6-foot-2 senior had scored 10 of his game-high 28 points. He would finish the quarter with 25.
Better still, Nixa had trimmed Ozark’s lead to a mere eight points at 55-47. With 6:21 left on the clock, there was still plenty of basketball left to play.
As it turns out, both teams spent most of it sending one another to the free throw line, and both teams were effective.
Nixa made 17-of-19 attempts in the final period, including Mason’s 12-of-12, while Ozark converted 21-of-29 attempts.
With the Eagles poised for a late rally behind Mason’s heroics, and Ozark unable to do much against him beyond repeated fouls, Schweitzer was glad his team had built up a sizable advantage.
“Mason got going there,” Schweitzer said. “He hit the outside shot and then started taking the ball to the hole really aggressively and was getting himself to the free throw line. That’s why they were able to come back, because they scored with the time stopped for pretty much the whole fourth quarter.”
In the final 30 seconds, Nixa pulled within five points on the strength of its full-court pressure and perimeter shooting.
Kaleb Wofford’s 3-pointer from the wing cut to lead to 82-77, which led to Ozark’s Riwa drawing a quick foul on the ensuing inbounds play.
With :16 remaining, Riwa stepped to the line with a chance to seal the win, and converted both attempts.
“The biggest thing for me is my mind goes blank; it’s just me and the ball in the goal,” Riwa said. “I don’t think about the student sections yelling, the crowd — I don’t think about anything. It’s just me and the rim, so I just work and focus on my routine going straight up into it. It feels pretty good knowing that I hit the daggers to end the game.”
Colin Ruffin (13), Kael Combs (11) and Wofford (10) all joined Mason (28) in double figures for Nixa.
Both teams are back in action Friday, Feb. 7. Ozark (11-7) hosts Neosho, while Nixa (14-6) welcomes Joplin.
Varsity Final: Ozark – 84, Nixa – 79
Ozark 13 14 24 33 — 84
NIxa 10 13 12 44 — 79
Nixa scoring: Josh Mason – 28, Colin Ruffin – 13, Kael Combs – 11, Kaleb Wofford – 10, Colton Berry – 6, Evann Long – 4, Jason Jones – 4, T.J. Sorgenfrei – 3
Ozark scoring: Ethan Whatley – 17, A.J. Elliott – 15, Alonzo Riwa – 15, Kyle Flavin – 10, Blaine Cline – 8, Jake Skaggs – 7, Tyler Harmon – 6, Owen Brockman – 2, Cannon Cox – 2, Jaylen Weston – 2
JV Final: Ozark – 75, Nixa – 73