COLUMBIA — The Meadville High School Eagles are playing this weekend in the state semifinals and finals for the first time in the program's history.
Unfortunately, Thursday's semifinal-game outcome meant their stay at the Missouri State High School Activities Association State Basketball Championships would not be as long as they'd hoped.
The Eagles tangled with Stanberry in the semifinals, losing only their second game of the season, 51-47, in the University of Missouri's Hearnes Center early Thursday evening.
"I thought it was a tough, physical game," said MHS head coach Darren Smith. "I thought it was a good ballgame and an entertaining game to watch."
In a strange statistical anomaly, Stanberry – which likes to score inside when possible – was a perfect seven of seven from 3-point land in the game, even though the Eagles – with help from some point-blank misses by the Bulldogs – held their foe to less than 30 percent success from inside 19 feet.
"They shot the ball extremely well from 3-point (distance), a lot better than we expected, to be honest," said Da. Smith. "I thought we defended their bigs well. They were nine of 31 from inside the 3-point line."
Stanberry also was generally ineffective at the free-throw line, until the game was on the line. It hit four straight free throws 30 seconds apart in the final 1:10 to expand a 1-point lead to five and then one of two with 14 seconds left to reestablish a 2-possession spread. For the game, Stanberry was merely 12 of 21 from the stripe.
For Coach Smith and his Eagles (29-2), who showed the drive and desire that he seeks of his squads, they will gather themselves and face 2012 state runner-up Drexel (29-2) for third place Friday at 6:40 p.m. across the street at MU's Mizzou Arena.
Stanberry (23-7) and Eminence (26-5), which nipped Drexel with two treys in the final 30 seconds of overtime to erase a 4-points deficit immediately prior to Meadville's game Thursday, will play for the Class 1 state championship Saturday night at Mizzou Arena.
"You tip your hat to a team that played well tonight," coach Smith said of Stanberry. "We are going to wish them well, and go on to fight another day."
The outcome capped a topsy-turvy second half for the Carroll-Livingston Activities Association champion Eagles.
Down two at intermission, they quickly tied it on Kolton Friesner's jumper off a Logan Newlin assist. Two Derek Smith free throws knotted it again, 29-29, at the 5:16 mark of the third stanza.
However, a pair of turnovers and missed 3-pointers by MHS opened the door for Stanberry to seize the game's largest lead – seven points – at 36-29 with just under 2-1/2 minutes left in the quarter.
Needing a pick-me-up desperately, the Eagles got it from sophomore reserve guard Dalton Palmer, who converted Derrick Knifong's pass into a left-wing 23-footer that pulled Meadville back within four.
Page 2 of 4 - Another Ryan Jensen deuce gave Stanberry a 6-points bulge with 45 seconds remaining in the frame and that was the score heading to the fourth.
Starting the final frame, the Eagles showed the fire and competitive desire that has fueled their successful program all season long and during a run of five-consecutive state-tourney appearances.
The MHS boys opened the fourth quarter on a 10-0 run over the first 2:45 to take the lead for the first time since being up 19-17 early in the second quarter.
It was ignited by the Eagles' outcourt defense as two De. Smith steals in the first 20 seconds turned into another Palmer trey and Smith's breakaway layup. In less than a half-minute, Meadville had slashed the lead from six to one.
A half-minute later, another Stanberry turnover gave MHS a chance to take the lead, but it couldn't convert, thanks to one of several illegal-screen offensive fouls called on the Eagles in the last stanza.
At the 6:10 mark, a Bulldogs foul sent De. Smith to the free-throw line where he hit both chances, handing the Eagles a 39-38 lead.
Stanberry responded with three missed shots from within five feet on its next possession before Friesner finally cleared the glass for Meadville. When the ball got to the other end of the floor, Palmer drive the left baseline for a layup to make it a 3-points Eagles advantage with 5:43 to go.
Another Stanberry miss from close range was grabbed by De. Smith, who was fouled intentionally, officials rule. That meant both two free throws and possession afterward, creating a chance for a 4- or 5-point possession which could have given Meadville as much as an 8-points lead lead.
However, in a game-turning development, only one of the two foul shots went it and the Eagles turned the ball over on the following possession, leaving Meadville with a 42-38 advantage with just over five minutes left.
Stanberry used the sequence as the pivot point of the game.
A layup cut the MHS lead in half and, after a missed Eagles layup attempt and another offensive foul, Cole Gage's 3-pointer – his team's seventh make from downtown in its seventh and final try there – slipped Stanberry back in front – for good this time – at 43-42 with 4:05 remaining.
Three Bulldogs free throws across the next two minutes while Meadville remained in what would become a nearly-4-minutes scoring drought pushed Stanberry's lead to four.
With less than 80 seconds remaining, Smith found Shiflett for a 3-pointer from the left side, putting the Eagles within a point at 46-45 with 1:17 to play, but they would not ever catch up.
Two Gage charity tosses with 1:10 left and, after an ill-advised long trey try was well short, two Reid Osborn foul shots with 51 ticks to go created a 2-possession spread, 50-45.
Page 3 of 4 - De. Smith followed his own miss and hit the outback to bring the Bulldogs within range with 37 seconds to go, but, after Stanberry twice was forced to take timeouts because it was running out of time to get the ball across mid-court, the Bulldogs managed to run the clock down to 14 seconds before getting fouled. When Jacob Heddinger made the second of his two shots, it was a 2-possession margin again and the fate of the Meadville boys was close to sealed.
After advancing the ball to the front court, the Eagles surprisingly took their last timeout with 11 seconds to go, leaving them effectively only about four seconds to score or Stanberry would be able to let the clock run out without having to ever throw the ball in. As it turned out, the Eagles couldn't even get a shot off before only five seconds remaining. Superfluously, it missed and time vanished before MHS could try another, meaningless shot.
"We got a little impatient in the fourth quarter and took some shots deeper than we would have liked," acknowledged the Meadville head coach. "We also had four possessions in a row where we set illegal screens, and we have to do better than that."
"I am very proud of them," said Da. Smith. "This group of kids are fighters and want to be successful. For this to be the first Meadville boys team to come down here, it's hard to come back and sustain momentum. You can't give away possessions in a game like this."
A steal and a hoop from Derek Smith started Thursday's scoring for the Eagles at the one minute mark of the opening frame.
The teams would trade baskets from here, with Stanberry taking an early lead thanks to the first of its 3-pointers on the night. TJ Schmitz would find Cade Shiflett for a trifecta for the Meadville boys, giving the local squad back the lead. Shiflett would drain one more from downtown in the opening quarter, and the Eagles would hold a 12-11 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Smith found Blake Burkholder to open the second quarter with a solid bucket. Smith would add a basket of his own to allow the Eagles to start the frame with a 4-0 run. Stanberry and Shiflett would duel 3-pointers, with Stanberry gaining the edge at the 2:45 mark to take the lead. The Eagles would battle back, and a three-pointer from Schmitz would again tie the game at the 5:24 mark. A late hoop from Stanberry would put Meadville down 27-25 at the half.
For Meadville, which shot just under 40 percent from the field for the game and was only eight of 27 from outside the arc, De. Smith had 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and five steals. Shiflett had 12 points, four boards and a steal, and fellow sophomore Palmer eight points on two treys and his driving score in the final period.
Page 4 of 4 - For usually-balanced Stanberry, state semifinal play didn't change that tendency. Without a player averaging scoring in double figures for the season, the Bulldogs got 11 points from J. Heddinger and 10 each from Gage, Nathan Luke, and Jensen Thursday. Osborn added six points and a game-high 11 rebounds.