By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — As the final seconds ran off the clock on Wednesday night, just about everyone in the building knew that Bolivar was going to have Kyle Pock take the final shot.
After all, who wouldn’t put the game in the hands of one of the state’s top prospects?
But as Pock dribbled to his right and pulled up for a jumper — a shot he’s practiced countless times before — the Liberators knew something that wasn’t as obvious to those in attendance.
“You know how spoiled we are? We all knew it was going to go in,” Liberators coach Robby Hoegh said. “That’s what he’s done for three years.”
Pock didn’t disappoint, hitting the go-ahead shot with five seconds to play as Bolivar withstood Springfield Catholic’s late surge in a 60-58 victory at the O’Reilly Family Athletic Center.
The junior guard led all scorers with 34 points in a battle between two of the state’s top Class 5 teams and a pair of the region’s top individual talents in Pock and Catholic senior Zach Howell.
Howell, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward who holds multiple Division-I offers, led the fifth-ranked Fightin’ Irish with 28 points — including a layup that tied the game at 58 with 40 seconds remaining.
But that left more than enough time for the fourth-ranked Liberators to run a set play for Pock, a 6-foot-7 wing with multiple Division-I offers of his own. They ran about 30 seconds off the clock before Pock deferred the screen, dribbled twice and hit a pull-up jumper from just inside the arc.
It was a play Pock estimated the Liberators practiced “thousands” of times over the off-season — and even during the season — for moments precisely like the one they faced Wednesday.
“I just got to my spot and shot it,” Pock said. “My teammates trust me to shoot that shot.”
It’s easy to see why.
“The guy is just 100 percent winner,” Hoegh said. “No doubt about it.”
Pock’s heroics allowed the Liberators to escape with a victory in a game they led by 12 points with just over two minutes to play in the third quarter, only to see Catholic fight all the way back.
The Fightin’ Irish opened the fourth quarter on a 10-2 run to get within a point with just over five minutes remaining, but were unable to pull even until Howell hit his layup in the final minute.
“You always know a good team is going to make a run,” Hoegh said. “You have to answer the bell. Our kids obviously kept their poise and I’m proud of them for that.”
When Howell tied the game, the Fightin’ Irish had outscored Bolivar 16-7 in the quarter — and the Liberators hadn’t hit a field goal in five minutes. Momentum was clearly in Catholic’s favor.
Bolivar was not deterred.
“We just had to look each other in the eyes,” Pock said. “It’s a game of runs. They got three turnovers to start that fourth quarter. We just had to lock in. Don’t freak out. We had to stay poised and connected and we can’t disconnect in that time.”
Pock and Howell were locked in from the start.
Guarding each other all night, the duo traded blows throughout the game — and combined to score 25 consecutive points in a stretch that spanned portions of the first and second quarters.
“Howell really competed hard,” Hoegh said. “That’s to be expected. Two guys that love competing and love basketball and play for the school written across the chest. Great high school game.”
For Catholic coach Jack Simpson, “great” might be an understatement.
“That matchup was special,” he said. “I don’t know if there will be a better matchup in southwest Missouri this year. Watching Kyle and Zach go back and forth, I don’t know if it gets any better.”
Pock finished the first half with 19 points as Bolivar led 34-25.
“When (Pock) got in a rhythm, I knew it might be a long night for us,” Simpson said. “He got in a rhythm early and he’s so smooth and makes shots over the top. He hit that fade-away, deep-corner. I mean, hats off to them. Sometimes you tip your cap and you move on. Kyle’s a great player. He’s going to have a great rest of the year, a great senior year and then go on to do good things.”
The Fightin’ Irish tried to find Howell one more time after Pock hit the go-ahead jumper, but the pass was slightly off target and no player was able to get a shot off before time expired.
Bolivar improved to 19-2 and has five games left – four at home – before the Class 5 District 6 tournament begins on February 26. If the Liberators and Fightin’ Irish both win their districts, a Pock-Howell rematch would happen in the quarterfinals — with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
The Liberators aren’t looking that far ahead.
“Our district is loaded,” Hoegh said. “We would love it if we could get there. We’re not sitting here going ‘We’re going to meet that team.’ There are seven other teams in our district that are highly, highly capable. We’re probably going to have a district with four teams that are ranked in the top 10. We’d love it. I don’t care who we’re facing. If you get to play in that game, great.”
Ty Lyon added 12 points as Catholic fell to 19-6, with three of those losses coming in the Tournament of Champions.
“We’ve played a really hard schedule this year,” Simpson said. “That’s another really tough game that’s going to prepare us for two weeks from now when we go into district play and try to get three wins and then hopefully draw up a rematch with those guys.”
BOLIVAR 17 17 17 9 — 60
CATHOLIC 17 8 17 16 — 58