By Jeff Kessinger (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Holding Springfield Catholic to just 25 points in the first half was pretty good. You’ll need a much stronger superlative to describe what the Hartville Eagles did in the second half.
Top-seeded Hartville shut down a very good Catholic team in the Blue Division semifinals, pulling away in the second half for a 57-39 win at JQH Arena Wednesday afternoon.
“Defense is really a staple of our team,” Hartville senior Ryce Piper said. “A lot of times when things aren’t going our way offensively, kind of like it wasn’t in the first half today, we rely on our defense. If there’s one thing you can never change, it’s your defense. You can make shots or miss shots, but you can’t change your defense.”
Hartville held Catholic to just 5 points in the third quarter, three of them on one long-range basket by Will Squibb. But zoom out a little bit and it gets even more impressive. The Eagles held Catholic to just one field goal in just more than 11 minutes of clock time from the second to fourth quarter.
They slowed down a scorching-hot Zach Howell to do it. The Irish junior averaged 29 points in the first two games of the tournament. He scored 15 for the game, with five points coming in the fourth quarter.
“Over time Cody Mahan just wore on him,” Hartville coach Brett Reed said. “He stayed with (Howell) and never left him. It was a mixture of Cody and Piper that held him to 14 last time we played them. If you can hold him under 20, you’ve done a great job.”
While Catholic ran cold, Hartville got hot. The Eagles opened the third quarter with a 10-0 run to change a 25-21 halftime deficit into a 31-25 lead midway through the period. The Irish responded with a small run to get as close as 37-34 early in the fourth before Hartville ran away. Mahan and Braden Branstetter drained 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Eagles get the win. Mahan finished with 15 points.
“Cody’s one of those guys who doesn’t always show up in the stat book as far as points go, but defensively he’s going to bring it every night,” Reed said. “He’s going to guard the other team’s best player and do a great job.”
Hartville needed its defense to have a good afternoon. The Eagles struggled to score the ball in the first half, and not just from long range.
“We didn’t shoot it very well,” Reed said. “We missed a lot of chip shots the first half around the basket and we felt like we were going to be better than that in the second half. And we just wanted to continue to guard (in the second half). We didn’t guard that bad in the first half, holding a team like that to 25. Then you come out in the second half and really lock down, really clamp down and overall that was the difference.”
Piper scored 18 points to lead all scorers, while Mahan added 15 and Branstetter finished with 12, nine of them in the second half. Catholic was paced by 15 from Howell and 8 each from Squibb and Liam O’Reilly.
Now Hartville, one of the smallest schools in the Blue & Gold has a chance to win back-to-back titles for the first time in school history. They’ll do it against a much bigger school, but the Eagles don’t seem intimidated.
“We take pride in it,” Piper said. “We’re going to come fight every night and give teams everything we’ve got. That’s what we do.”
Reed feels the same way.
“I wouldn’t say we felt like underdogs coming into this year after winning it last year, but if you’re a small school and you get to play four games at the Blue & Gold, you feel like you’ve had a good tournament,” Hartville’s coach said. “We’re not satisfied. We want to go out and win it again, but we know we’ll have a tall task with either one of these teams.”
Catholic – 13 12 5 9 – 39
Hartville – 10 11 16 20 – 57
Catholic – Zach Howell 15, Liam O’Reilly 8, Will Squibb 8, John David Bigler 6, Trenton Webster 2
Hartville – Ryce Piper 18, Cody Mahan 15, Braden Branstetter 12, Brady Ward 8, Eli Cook 4