Owls knock off No. 2 Mexico
SEDALIA -- Robbie Johnson came down with a serious case of the shines Friday.
One could count the Marshall junior's teeth long after he hit the basket which brought down second-ranked Mexico in the semifinals of the Smith-Cotton/McDonalds Classic at Sedalia. Held scoreless until the final play of the Owls' 62-59 victory, Johnson connected from the corner as the buzzer sounded -- setting off a celebratory pandemonium for the Marshall team and partisans.
"He didn't hesitate. He caught it, went up and it went in," Owls head coach Scott Harrold described the deciding shot. "That's what you want from your kids."
It was a fitting conclusion for a gripping contest between two talented NCMC foes. Neither team held a lead larger than eight points and each possession seemed critical.
"That's what high school athletics is all about: two teams playing as hard as they can," Harrold remarked. "You just got to love those."
After an even start over the first two minutes, three Marshall turnovers and six points by junior Sean Raboin gave the Bulldogs an 11-6 edge with three minutes left in the first quarter.
"We may have been too pumped up," Harrold said, explaining the Owls' momentary shakiness. "We knew we didn't want to run up and down with them all night long and wanted to make them play defense."
The Birds calmed down and surged when senior Derik Lavers connected from the elbow, sophomore Jonathan Durham drained a three-pointer and junior Justin Durham and Lavers scored in transition.
Senior Fuzzy Belcher and Raboin stroked jumpers, senior Thomas Simmons and Belcher crashed the offensive glass for put-backs and senior Dedrick Harrington drove for a reverse layup to put Mexico in front, 24-17, with six minutes remaining in the half.
However, the Owls were able to pound the ball inside to Lavers and junior Erik Roehrs. They combined for 10 points to close Marshall to within two by halftime.
The pace quickened during the third period, with Marshall getting the better of it. Justin Durham bombed, Lavers got a pair of layups and Durham sank a floater from the paint.
Senior Marcus Yokeley fed Roehrs down low, Lavers made two free throws and Yokeley canned a trey to finish a 13-4 spree, putting the Owls up by six points five minutes into the half.
"We handled their press well all night long," Harrold said. "We did a good job of taking advantage of opportunities."
Marshall cooled off, but Mexico -- making four of 10 shots from the field and committing three turnovers -- trailed by eight points after Lavers' three straight offensive rebounds led to two Durham free throws with 3:24 to go in the game.
A Raboin freebie then preceded a Harrington spree for Mexico. The two-time all-stater made two charities, hit from the high post and -- after a Roehrs bucket -- fired it in from downtown to cut the margin to two with 45 seconds left.
Yokeley missed the front end of a one-and-one with 22.5 seconds remaining. Lavers cleared the glass, was fouled and also missed from the line. Mexico's Harrington dumped a pass into the blocks for Raboin to tie the game at 5.7 seconds.
Durham rushed the ball upcourt, but his path was cut off by Harrington. He bounced it right for Johnson to stroke home.
"Earlier in the half he shot an airball from the same spot," Harrold recalled. "He's been struggling on the offensive end."
Johnson didn't fail when it counted, though. Harrington scored 13 of his 20 points in the second half and Raboin and Belcher combined for 25 points and 12 rebounds, but the Bulldogs (10-2) were edged on the boards (28-25) and outshot (53.2 to 49.0 percent) by the Owls.
"Defensively, we played 32 minutes," Harrold praised, pointing to the work done off the bench by junior Jamahal Jackson -- who limited Raboin to five second-half points. "He's learned how to play good defense and is making an effort to do so."
Lavers had game highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds, Durham added 15 points and seven boards, Roehrs scored 11 and Yokeley dished out six assists. Mexico had beaten the Owls in four straight meetings, by an average of 21 points, dating back to the Sedalia tourney's semifinals in '99.
Marshall had been in the same position twice before during head coach Scott Harrold's tenure, neither time with success.
After beating Mexico in the '98 semifinals of the Smith-Cotton/McDonalds Classic, the Owls dropped a close, 50-47, decision to the host team. The next season, a win over the Bulldogs preceded a 64-27 loss to Troy. If Harrold was concerned about Saturday's championship game with Raymore-Peculiar, it was founded in history.
"I was a little worried coming off an emotional win, to see how good we would play defensively," Harrold admitted. As it was, Marshall's intensity was more than sufficient, but its shooting wasn't during a 47-42 loss.
"I hope the kids learn and understand what happened here," he said afterwards. "Take the confidence from the Mexico game when everything is clicking and the lesson from tonight when it's not."
That the Owls would go into an offensive slump was unforeseen. They began by making seven of 10 attempts from the field during the first quarter, with junior Justin Durham pouring in 12 points. However, senior Ryan Lowry, junior Derek Rasmussen and senior Caleb Peterson each buried three-pointers to give the Panthers a 19-14 lead early in the second quarter.
A pair of free-throws by senior Eric Gilmore and sophomore Jonathan Durham's two bombs closed the margin to one point with just under four minutes left in the half, but then Marshall fired blanks for nearly 12 minutes - missing 13 straight shots until senior Derik Lavers nailed a trey from the corner as the horn sounded to end the third quarter.
"They were keying on Derik and (junior) Erik (Roehrs) pretty hard on the inside," Harrold explained the Ray-Pec defensive approach which denied the Owls opportunities from the paint. "They started pushing us out farther and farther."
The only reason Marshall remained in contention was its defense, which didn't allow the Panthers to fully exploit the scoring drought. Over the first 10 minutes of that span, Ray-Pec managed just five points. It was able to extend the margin to 11 late in the third period by pounding the ball inside to the burly, 6-foot-5 senior center Mike Allen. The tourney's "most valuable player" hit two buckets and a free throw within 50 seconds.
"That was the key, his combination of size and strength," Harrold said. "We were doubling down with our guards. He was so big and strong, he was going up anyway."
The Panthers pushed the margin to 13 points when Allen powered inside with 4:12 left, but the game wasn't nearly over. The Owls staged a furious rally, beginning with senior Marcus Yokeley's feed to Roehrs in the low blocks. Justin Durham drove the baseline for a deuce, stole a pass and was fouled for two charities, and finished a fast break off of Lavers' steal.
Allen got loose down low, but Durham stuck back a miss and Ray-Pec bricked the front end of two one-and-one chances. Lavers' free throw cut the deficit to four points with 37.6 seconds remaining. Lowry made a freebie, but a trade of turnovers consumed over 14 critical seconds before Roehrs converted junior Robbie Johnson's pass with 11.8 to go.
Lowry added two points to the Panthers' 45-42 lead with 10.6 second left. Jonathan Durham jacked up a three which didn't drop for Marshall and sophomore Evan Lange's rebound sealed the outcome.
Allen's 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots gave Ray-Pec (9-5) the title it lost a year ago to Rock Bridge, 30-28.
Justin Durham had 23 points, but the rest of the Owls' starting lineup was limited to nine points -- including four each for Lavers and Roehrs, who combined for 14 boards. Marshall (10-3), which suffered a 67-47 semifinal setback to Ray-Pec last year, shot just 27.1 percent from the field.
"We'll have other nights like this," predicted Harrold, whose team returns home Thursday to play Smith-Cotton. "We need to fight through it when everything isn't clicking."