By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — If you are a high school basketball coach in southwest Missouri — or anywhere, for that matter — and you’ve got to choose one player to shoot the ball with the game on the line, there are few better options than Greenwood standout Aminu Mohammed.
Turns out Ryan Gibbons is also a great choice.
Gibbons came off the bench and nailed two clutch 3-pointers during a late Greenwood rally, including the go-ahead shot with 20 seconds to go, as the Blue Jays erased a six-point deficit over the final two minutes for a stunning 55-53 victory over Viola (Arkansas) on Wednesday.
Playing their first regular-season game in the brand new Betty & Bobby Allison Event Center, the Blue Jays trailed by as many as nine in the third quarter before battling back to hand the Natural State’s top-ranked Class 1A school just its third loss in 24 games on the season.
Mohammed, a five-star recruit who has committed to play for 11-time NBA All-Star Patrick Ewing at Georgetown in the fall, finished with a game-high 22 points despite being held scoreless in the first quarter. But with the Longhorns defense pressuring him heavily in the final moments, he showed off his playmaking skills and left the biggest shots to his teammates.
On the decisive play, he drew Viola’s defense to him and found Gibbons wide-open in front of the Greenwood bench. As the ball left the junior’s hands and began its ascent toward the basket, teammates immediately began celebrating. Fans joined in as it fell through the hoop.
“He’s got a lot of trust in me,” Gibbons said. “We’ve practiced that a few times. I knew he was going to give me the ball. Just had to be patient and wait for the right time.”
Gibbons also hit the 3-pointer that initially started Greenwood’s rally, cutting the deficit to 48-45 with 1:48 left in the fourth quarter. After trading points over the next minute, sophomore Nic Burri got the Blue Jays within one as his uncontested 3-pointer made it 52-51 with 31.9 seconds left.
Greenwood fouled immediately, and Viola split the ensuing free throws to set up Gibbons’ game-winning shot. He and fellow junior Tommy Pinegar finished nine points a piece — all on treys — as Greenwood outscored Viola 27-6 from beyond the arc to improve to 14-2 this year.
“It’s hard to focus on just Aminu because there are so many pieces around him,” said Rick Luna, the former Dora coach who is in his first year at the helm of the Viola program.
“When the outside shooters are making their shots, they’re tough. If you take away Aminu and you take away his drive to the basket and they’re not making their outside shots, teams have a chance. But when they’re making those outside shots, they’re tough.”
Greenwood’s perimeter game wasn’t as effective in the first quarter, so the Longhorns were able to put more pressure on Mohammed and built a 16-10 advantage while keeping him scoreless.
“Viola just plays so hard,” Greenwood coach Darren Taylor said. “You always feel like you’re working for every little thing you get and they played very good defense. They’re quick. They’re hard to stay in front of.”
But that lead had all-but evaporated by halftime, as Mohammed scored 10 of his team’s 14 second-quarter points as the Blue Jays entered the locker room trailing 25-24. He opened the second half with a thunderous dunk that touched off a back-and-forth third quarter that saw four lead changes and a pair of ties before the Longhorns went on a 13-2 run to go ahead 40-31.
“We made some really bad decisions,” Taylor said. “We’ve done that two or three times this year where we get back within striking distance and then we throw it away or we walk or we charge or just something to interfere with our run. It seems like any time that happened, the other team would go down and score.”
Gage Harris and Mason Luna had 15 points apiece to pace Viola, which also received 13 from Blaine Marberry. But the Longhorns (21-3) went 5-of-10 from the free-throw line in the final 1:48, missing opportunities to take a more commanding lead at pivotal times. Harris had a chance to win the game with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but it bounced off the rim as time expired.
The comeback win gives Greenwood some much-needed momentum as it prepares to host Class 2 No. 3 Mid-Buchanan this Saturday, its fifth game against a state-ranked team in nine days. They’re 2-2 in the previous four, losing to Hartville and Kickapoo before beating Park Hill.
“I thought we looked really good and moved the ball, but there were times the ball was sticking,” Rick Luna said. “There were times that we forced shots. There were times that we didn’t go rebound. We’ve still got room to improve. We’ve got to take all those bads and make them good and then put it all together. That’s when we’ll go from pretty good to really good.”