Couldn't generate any second-half push against St. Elizabeth Friday (March 6, 2020) after surviving wild first half that featured 17 treys

(Will be updated with quotes from MHS coach Drew Nier later today [Sat. 3/7])

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
MOBERLY, Mo. — Having  survived a wild first half that would have been a handicapper’s nightmare with only a 47-40 deficit, the Meadville High School Eagles never put together an extended second-half surge Friday night (March 6, 2020), leading to an 82-71 loss to St. Elizabeth in a quarterfinals game of the Class 1 boys’ basketball state tournament.
“If you’d have told me, going in, that they were going to make 10 3s in the first half, I would have probably said, ‘Ohhh, boys, we’re probably going to get hammered,’” admitted Drew Nier, MHS head coach, in a post-game interview with the C-T.
“For us to only be down seven at the half, I think, is a tribute to (our) kids and the work they put in and just the fight they have. I said (to the team during halftime), ‘Nine teams out of 10, this game’s over right now. We’re down seven. We’re still alive. They’re not going to shoot the ball that well (in the second half).’
“Unfortunately, in the second half, they were able to execute a game plan we tried to take away, which was get the ball inside and we just couldn’t get enough ‘stops’ or enough opportunities to get close enough to really threaten them.”
Expecting much-taller St. Elizabeth (24-5) to focus on trying to do most of its damage in and around the paint, Meadville (26-3) easily could have melted away into the night and absorbed a blowout loss when the Hornets from central Missouri unexpectedly unleashed a torrent of 10 pre-intermission trifectas with less than a handful of misfires.
“To put it mildly, no,” the MHS coach said of St. Elizabeth’s sensational sniping from long distance. “The scouting report and the games that I’ve watched (video of), that was the weaker part of their team.”
However, the Eagles fought fire with fire, burying seven shots from beyond the arc – and also completing one three-points play – in the opening two periods.
When, on the last possession of the first half, Meadville’s defensive specialist Ethan Newlin fired and hit a triple from right of the key off Dominik Gannan’s pass with one second on the clock, the Eagles headed back to the locker room very much in a game in which their opponent had nearly 50 points. Newlin’s shot left the smoking scoreboard showing a score of St. Elizabeth 47, Meadville 40.
Given that the Tri-County Conference champs had displayed they wouldn’t be scared off by a run-and-gun style of game, St. Elizabeth Dillon Tenholder wisely opted to try to establish what had been expected to be the Hornets’ strongest strategy – getting the ball in low and trying to out-muscle the smaller MHS players – when play resumed following intermission.
Attempting few and making only one trey in the game’s last 16 minutes, St. Elizabeth flourished instead by feeding big men Ross Struemph and Brady Heckmeyer, both of whom looked to stand 6’5” tall or taller. With the Eagles – with no player on the floor taller than 6’2” – having to respect the perimeter shooting threat unexpectedly displayed by the Hornets in the first half, time and time again, MHS defenders came up inches short of reaching entry passes to the block areas and rebounds of missed St. Elizabeth shot that instead were corralled by Hornets.
As a result, doing it by twos instead of threes in the last two periods, St. Elizabeth continued to score on a high percentage of its possessions, posting a still-significant 17 points in the third frame and 18 in the fourth to re-establish and then maintain a double-figures lead.
The Hornets grabbed two offensive rebounds before Heckmeyer got a third shot to fall on the first possession of the second half, setting the tone. After Meadville didn’t counter, a short-range shot from left of the hoop by Struemph pushed the gap to 11.
“Obviously, with the size they have inside, we wanted to try to limit where their post players caught the ball and, in the first half, with the way they shot, that kind of all went out the window,” Nier said of the defensive revamp he had to make during halftime. “We had to start chasing (perimeter) shooters and then they got isolated matchups inside.”
When Coltin Green swished a trey from right of the key, St. Elizabeth had produced seven points its first three times with the ball in the third quarter, doubling its lead to 14 – only one less than its first-half peak – in barely two minutes.
“I thought we played pretty well,” reflected Nier. “I told the guys in the locker room, ‘Sometimes, you just catch a red-hot team like that and we caught one tonight.’
“We’ve done that to a lot of teams over the years; tonight, we were on the other end of it.”
Still-determined Meadville trimmed the margin to nine twice later in the frame, but still stood in arrears 65-52 heading into the last stanza.
Beginning with another Struemph short shot after a driving teammate’s dump-off pass, St. Elizabeth restored its game-max 15-points lead five times in the last period before eight points by senior Dominik Gannan allowed the Eagles twice to cut it to nine in the last minute.
The contest’s first half was a blur of bombs – not surprising for the Eagles, but very much so for St. Elizabeth.
Parker Burton’s driving shot at the left edge of the lane was the game’s first basket and gave MHS what would be its lone lead, 2-1, at the 6:08 mark of the opening period.
After a pair of St. Elizabeth deuces, the figurative clouds opened inside Fitzsimmons-John Arena on the campus of Moberly Area Community College opened and a deluge of 3s rained down on both teams’ defenses.
“A shootout wasn’t what we expected, coming into tonight,” Nier admitted.
Beginning with a triple by St. Elizabeth sophomore Brock Lucas that made it 8-2 at the 4:11 mark, the next three field goals and six of the next seven in a span of less than three minutes were launched from outside the arc. Even with the Hornets delivering four of those missiles, they gained only a 17-10 lead, thanks to D. Gannan tallying all eight MHS points in that stretch.
However, a putback, a transition layup, and a mid-range jumper by St. Elizabeth in the last 65 seconds of the first frame left in owning a 23-10 advantage after one.
When the Hornets countered four Parker Burton tallies with two triples by junior reserve Carson Kesel – all in the first 60 seconds of the second stanza, the Eagles were staring at a 15-points chasm.
“I thought we did a decent job of contesting” (defending) against many of the St. Elizabeth 3-pointers, the Meadville coach observed. “… Kudos to them because they knocked the shots down.”
Somehow, even in the face of Kesel draining three more treys in the next 3:40, Meadville stayed afloat in the torrent.
While Kesel continued to sizzle, Burton completed a driving basket-and-1, D. Gannan and Conner Fletcher found the mark from 3-points range, Burton sank two more free throws, and Trey Gannan connected from deep.
After the fifth of Kesel’s missiles – all without a miss, Meadville trailed by 15 with 3:25 left in the half, but it used those remaining 105 seconds well.
D. Gannan drove the paint to score, Newlin flashed by a taller defender to drive the right baseline and touch a shot off the window and in, and D. Gannan knocked down his fourth trey of the first half to pull the Eagles within 43-35 with 1:24 still on the second-stanza clock.
Even with Struemph sandwiching a nifty Burton right-baseline drive and reverse layup finish with a pair of low-post buckets, MHS got one last shot of adrenaline when Newlin tickled the twine just before time ran out in the half.
With that big “make” from the unlikeliest source on their team, Meadville fans had to feel that, having weathered the first-half fireworks to be in contention, perhaps the “basketball gods” were going to be the wind under the Eagles’ wings after all on this night.
However, playing to its strong suit throughout the last half, St. Elizabeth dealt out a losing hand to MHS, ending its latest excellent season.
Nier related, “I said (to the team in the locker room after the game), ‘I know it’s hard to think of now, but you don’t know what you guys mean to the program, the way that you play and the way you guys do things.’”
He agreed that this year’s squad, even with the program’s illustrious history of the past 10-15 years, justifiably will be one future Eagles teams look to emulate.
“A lot of guys from my (state-championship) team in (2015) were back to watch the next generation try to carry the torch on,” the MHS coach pointed out. “I said (to the team after Friday’s loss), ‘One of these days, you guys will be those kids standing over there in the corner, cheering on the guys you’ve inspired and have driven to put the time in and put the work in, so they get to play in a venue like this.”
Statistically, the offensive numbers for both teams were understandably whopping.
Meadville, with performances which probably 95 to 98 percent of the time would have produced victory, had 28 points from D. Gannan and 25 from Burton in what became their – as well as Newlin’s – MHS swan songs.
D. Gannan’s night included a handful of treys and another handful of deuces plus three free throws. Burton buried all 11 foul shots he earned with his drives, pacing a sensational team performance at the stripe of 15 of 17.
“I thought Parker and Dominik played this game like two senior captains who knew what was on the line and were going to leave it all out there, regardless of the outcome,” praised Nier.
Also reaching dual digits in scoring for Meadville was Conner Fletcher with 10 points, including three triples.
St. Elizabeth, however, marched on to the state semifinals and finals at Springfield next week behind four twin-numbers scorers.
Splitting them as evenly as possible, Struemph finished with a game-high 31 points. Nailing four treys, senior guard Nolan Heckemeyer popped in 17 points, Kesel – who essentially played only in the second period – delivered 15 with his uncanny long-range marksmanship, and Brady Heckmeyer added 10.
After the hard-to-believe bevy of lightning bolts from outside in the first half, the teams tacked on only four more after intermission with the winners finishing with a 11-10 advantage on the evening.