By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
WALNUT GROVE — As is the case with any good New Year’s Eve celebration, the Hollister boys basketball team had to wait for the ball to drop for the fun to truly begin.
In this case the ball wasn’t an extravagant contraption hanging high above Times Square, but a Hail Mary, half-court shot from Forsyth’s Buck Sanders just before the overtime buzzer.
Had it fallen through the hoop, the Panthers would have stunned the top-seeded team in the Walnut Grove Morris Brothers Holiday Classic. If it fell anywhere else, the Tigers would win the tournament and close out 2020 with 12 victories, matching their total from all of last season.
The ball was still ascending when it clanked off a ceiling support beam and fell well short of the hoop, giving Hollister a 52-50 victory on Thursday afternoon and pushing its record to 12-1.
As the final horn sounded, the Tigers poured onto the court to celebrate winning the tournament title. They hoisted the trophy high above their heads and roared, while some players flexed their muscles in postgame photos with the prize. This was a long time coming for Hollister, and it was finally here.
The celebration was officially underway.
“We talked before the season and this was a goal for us,” Hollister coach Pete Leonard said. “This was our second (tournament) championship game of the year. We fell in the first one to Strafford. It was big for us to come into this tournament and get it done.”
Trailing 45-41 midway through the fourth quarter, Hollister got a pair of three throws and a pull-up jumper from Cole Jones to tie the game with 2:45 remaining.
Those were the last points either team scored until there were 79 seconds left in overtime, as Sanders had another would-be buzzer-beater bounce off the rim at the end of regulation and the teams were conservative with their shot selection and clock management throughout overtime.
Tournament MVP Josh Barlow hit a pair of free throws to put Hollister up 47-45, but Forsyth senior Hunter Creson nailed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to restore his team’s lead.
Jones drew a foul with about 45 seconds to go and sank both of his free throws to put Hollister back on top, 49-48, and the Panthers turned the ball over on their next possession. Forsyth had no choice but to foul, and Jones split his next pair of attempts to put the Tigers ahead by three with 28.9 seconds to go. Forsyth couldn’t convert on its next possession, and had to foul again.
Barlow went back to the line and split, making it 52-48. Creson hit a long two with about seven seconds remaining to make it a one-possession game, but the Tigers took the maximum allotted time to inbound the ball before drawing a foul with 1.5 seconds remaining.
After missing the first free throw, Leonard ordered his shooter to intentionally miss the second. The idea was to force the Panthers to collect the ball under their own rim and immediately have to shoot, but the instructions weren’t clear and the shooter stepped over the line prematurely.
That gave the Panthers the chance to inbound the ball and shoot, but that only momentarily delayed the inevitable. The final heave was off the mark, sealing the win for Hollister.
Jones led all players with 21 points, including eight of his team’s final 11 points.
“It was a big sigh of relief,” he said. “We both played hard the whole game. When we heard that buzzer sound and we were winning, that was the best feeling that I’ve had in a long time — winning a tournament and coming out as champions, especially against our rivals Forsyth.”
Sophomore Garrett Snyder added 13 for Hollister, including four 3-pointers. Three of them came in the first quarter as the Tigers took an early 12-8 lead that swelled to 27-20 at the half.
But Sanders scored seven of his team-high 17 points in a third quarter that No. 2 seed Forsyth won 20-10, surging past Hollister to take a 40-37 lead into the final frame. Gavin Lux (11 points) and Creson (10) also finished in double-digits for the Panthers, who fell to 7-5 on the season.
Hollister, meanwhile, moved 11 games above .500. It hasn’t finished a season .500 since 2014.
“When we play, it’s always going to be a barn-burner,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t matter if one team is 20-0 and the other is 0-20. It’s always going to be a close game.”
Despite the loss, Forsyth coach Eric Rogers commended his team’s showing in the tournament. Of all the teams who traveled to Walnut Grove in the past two weeks, only one fared better.
“There are 14 other teams who would love to be in our position right now — or 13, I guess,” Rogers said. “It’s one of those, you know, we gave it our all and just came up short at the end of the day. We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what we can come up with next time.”
Rogers said the fact that neither of his team’s last-second shots found the net — especially the one at the end of regulation, which was markedly closer — didn’t put an extra sting on the loss.
“It never really comes down to one shot,” he said. “There are several possessions throughout the ball game. I look at free-throw percentages a lot of times. Little missed layups, some of those things. Maybe even the turnover rate. Some of those last possessions are just magnified.
“We had open looks. We had the guys taking those shots that we wanted. All in all, it was just they didn’t fall. They didn’t fall for us today.”