By Brock Sisney (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE — The Joplin Eagles made two clutch defensive plays Thursday night during their 45-44 victory over the Republic Tigers for the Class 5, District 12 championship.
Joplin senior Tommy Hafer did not score Thursday, but he delivered one of the most important plays in a close game.
Late in the third quarter, with Joplin ahead 33-31, Republic senior Will Berry found himself momentarily open for a basket and potential tie score off a feed from freshman Ahlante Askew.
Hafer, though, recovered in more than enough time for some major help defense and blocked Berry’s layup attempt to preserve the Eagles’ lead entering the fourth quarter.
“The block is a tremendous thing to have at the end of the quarter,” Joplin head coach Jeff Hafer said, “where we battled back. We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket. We’re trying to get something and we’re about to give up an uncontested layup. I was real proud of him. He didn’t get a lot of minutes, but that was a big defensive play. When you’re playing to stay alive, every play matters. We talk about it all the time and you hear all coaches say it but four-five plays every game change momentum. That was one.”
Sophomore guard Always Wright scored 12 points in his first district championship game and he came through with the steal in the waning seconds to seal the district title for the Eagles.
“I told them in a (late) timeout, ‘We need two stops,’” Coach Hafer said. “We didn’t get any until that last play. That was the game and they were trying to do the same thing. Neither of us could get that deciding stop. We talked about it. It just turned out a little different and Always was the one that was screened, he switched and he just read it beautifully.”
Wright scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half as he delivered both offensively and defensively during money time. In the fourth quarter, every shot Wright made either gave the Eagles a tie or the lead and he set up Isaiah Davis for another go-ahead basket.
“Brandon Pate, one of our assistants, did a great job tonight,” Coach Hafer said. “He said, ‘We need to get Always in some ball screens.’ Once we started doing that, they had a hard time because Always made good decisions and Isaiah asserted himself down the stretch. Senior led, a sophomore comes out and makes some plays. They love him. They make him better, and he makes them better.”
The lead exchanged hands several times during a dramatic fourth quarter and Joplin senior Zach Westmoreland gave the Eagles the lead for good on a free throw with 20.5 seconds remaining in regulation. Republic senior Race Looney’s short jumper for the lead rimmed out and Westmoreland missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to leave the door open for the Tigers; Republic grabbed the rebound and called timeout with just under three seconds left.
Wright picked off senior Joe Rexroat’s pass to Looney near mid-court and time ran out on the Tigers.
Joplin won its second district title in three seasons, led by a strong senior class.
“This group is resilient,” Hafer said. “These guys win. They’re not used to losing and they try and find a way to win. We were a year ahead two years ago and last year, we struggled through some adversity. This group, it just shows you who they are. They stepped up and played for each other. They’ve earned it.”
Westmoreland scored a game-high 19 points for the Eagles with 18 of them in the first three quarters, Davis added 10 with eight after halftime (Wright and Davis combined for 18 second-half points, matching Westmoreland’s production for the first three quarters) and Dakarai Allen rounded out the scoring with four.
Allen’s biggest contribution, though, was his job shadowing Republic junior Drew McMillin for the full 94 feet in the final quarter. McMillin’s basket for a 31-29 lead in the third quarter gave him 15 points already for the evening, but he did not score another point the rest of the night.
Coach Hafer also commended senior Blake Tash for his work setting screens Thursday night.
Joplin, 21-5 overall and both conference and district champions, will play District 11 winner Kickapoo (18-9) in a sectional contest Wednesday night at Webb City’s Cardinal Dome. The Eagles defeated the Chiefs 64-60 in late January.
Rexroat added 12 points, the trio of Askew, Looney and Carson Neff each produced five, and Berry had two. Republic finishes 20-8 overall.