It was a fight to the finish when Eldon and Osage got together on the hardwood Tuesday night.
The Mustangs, looking for their first win of the season on Senior Night, welcomed an Indian team looking for some momentum heading into the postseason and regulation was not enough time to decide this chapter of the Lake area rivalry as the two sides went into overtime. It was the visitors who managed to prevail, though, as Osage pulled away for a 74-67 win.
“They (Eldon) played extremely well and really hard. We tried to tell our guys to put the records out the window because it is a rivalry game,” Osage coach Kevin Schnicker said. “They are at home, it is Senior Night and they have nothing to lose so we are going to have to come in and play.
“We were able to control it for four minutes in overtime, which is probably the best we’ve played all game. It was still not extremely great, but I think we played better as a team, did a good job of attacking and was able to hold on and finish it.”
For a team that was still looking for its first win of the year, Eldon sure did not play like it. In a tightly contested battle where neither side led by more than six points, the Mustangs went on a 6-0 run to start the fourth quarter and led by five with just over two minutes left.
“I thought we just competed really hard as a group. I don’t think we ever had one guy on the floor that lacked energy or effort,” Eldon coach Brandon Kliethermes stated. “I thought every single guy we put on the floor played absolutely as hard as they could and I think that is why we were able to stay in the game.”
However, in the final two minutes, Osage’s full court man-to-man press managed to give Eldon fits and help the Indians regain the advantage with a 3-pointer from senior Drake Gaines. The lead was exchanged four times and with time dwindling down, fellow Osage senior Spencer Zeller managed to pick up a key steal. Moments later, senior teammate Keyton Knamiller hit a short-range jumper to tie the game up at 64 with 15.1 seconds left. Another costly Eldon turnover gave the Indians the final shot, but Gaines’ game-winning 3-pointer clanked off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
“We had a good look at the end and I thought we did a good job of executing the last play of the game instead of giving them an opportunity because they were hitting at the time,” Schnicker said of the final play of regulation.
Osage struck first in the overtime period as the Indians scored the first six points and Eldon could not quite recover. Once again, the senior trio of Knamiller, Gaines and Zeller came through at a crucial time as they scored all 10 of the overtime points.
“We are not going to be the only win,” Gaines said of his team’s mindset in the final minutes. “They are our rivals and we cannot be their only win. We just had to embrace the grind and go get it in overtime.”
Zeller, who scored four of his six points in overtime, said the team just simply came together.
“It was just the right place at the right time and the brotherhood was there at the end,” the senior said of his ability to find the bottom of the net. “We came in clutch and everybody came in, we had a good talk and we turned it around there at the end.”
Eldon scored just once in extra time when senior Jordan Metz hit a 3-pointer to bring his team within three, but it was the closest the Mustangs would get. Eldon was held scoreless for the first three minutes of overtime until Metz hit the shot with a minute left. Once again, a few tough offensive possessions plagued the Mustangs down the stretch.
“We have never been there and that is something that is really hard to simulate. You can put four minutes on the clock in practice, but it is not the same as playing a conference game in overtime at home on Senior Night,” Kliethermes said of the situation. “It is just such a different mindset and I think we got a little tight. We did not do what allowed us to get there and tried to do a little too much in a couple of different spots. That is just a life lesson.”
As for Osage, good defensive stops led to some easy transition buckets on the other end and Knamiller said deflections made the biggest difference.
“In the first, second, third and fourth quarter we were not really getting deflections off their pick and rolls. We were not hedging screens so our deflections on the ball helped. They did not really get into the groove fully in their offense and that forced them to take shots that were not in groove,” he said.
Knamiller paced Osage with 22 points, Gaines added 20, senior Zach Wheeler put up nine and both junior Parker Jett and senior Jacob Hermann finished with seven. While the Indians did not necessarily have their best night on the floor, the small things they did added up.
“I pulled Keyton and said, ‘Man, you are the leader and have to make this work. We are either going to win the game or lose it,’ and he showed me he wanted to win and I love him for that,” Schnicker remarked. “He is a battler and our heart and soul. When guys are struggling, he was able to make things happen. Zach took four or five charges in the first half and that was huge and gave us a spark on the defensive end. I thought Jacob gave us some quality minutes and Spencer down the stretch went and got two balls with athleticism that helped us win the game.
“Did we execute? No, but did we find a way to win? Yes, and that is what good teams do. Sometimes it is not your night and you just have to find a way to win and we did that.”
Metz paced the Mustangs with 24 points while fellow senior Devin Degraffenreid put up 16, sophomore Clayton Moore recorded 13 and sophomore Logan Hall put up 11. Metz and Degraffenreid combined to score all 18 of Eldon’s points in the fourth quarter and Kliethermes did not hesitate to commend the efforts of the senior duo in their final home game.
“I love both of those kids a lot. They are real special and as hard as they play, they deserve better than 0-24,” the coach noted. “I hurt for them for that, but man, what they’ve done this year about not really being distracted- they just show up and work. They are good kids, I trust them and that says the world about those two. No matter if they can put the ball in the basket or not, we have a lot of love for both of them.”
And the coach’s praise did not stop there as he credited the rest of his group for the way they played Tuesday night.
“I think it proves to our bench guys that they can play as long as they play really hard. They might not be the most talented kids in the state, but when they play extremely hard they can help us,” Kliethermes stated. “Effort will help us no matter where you play or what your skill set is.
“Even those juniors and sophomores in Elijah (Rivera), Logan and Clayton, I thought they played with a lot of passion and energy tonight and had really good basketball nights also.”
The opposing bench certainly took notice of how hard Eldon played.
“I told Kliethermes after the game, ‘Hats off to you. Your kids played harder for you than mine played for me.’ In my eyes, we stole one from them,” Schnicker said. “These guys (Eldon) have gotten better. They played hard against Versailles on Friday night and they played extremely hard tonight.”
But the Indians still closed out the regular season with a win and now they will look to sharpen up for the postseason. On Monday, the team had a brief practice before going bowling and Schnicker said the team bonding activity came at an important time.
“We were hoping that would lighten and loosen them up and maybe that loosened them up too much, but at this time of year you want to make sure your kids are enjoying each other and finding a way to work together,” the coach said.
Of course, none of the bowling teams the players formed could take down what has become a dynasty among the coaching staff.
“We made them pick teams, bowled and of course the coaches have won three years in a row,” Schnicker said laughingly. “We are proud of that as a coaching staff and we are not great bowlers, but together we came up with a ‘W.’”
And now the Indians (12-13, 4-3 Tri-County Conference) will look to continue finding ways to get the ‘W’ as there is no more room for error in the postseason. Osage will face Eldon again in the first round of districts at Rolla on Saturday at 5 p.m., with a trip to the semifinals against Helias Catholic (16-7) on the line for Tuesday. Schnicker said his team did not sleep on Eldon the first time and do not intend to do so this time around.
“We just have to refocus our guys and get back to playing quality ball because now it is win or go home,” he said.
Zeller will certainly take that message to heart.
“It (this game) showed that it can be any team’s night. They (Eldon) have not won any games and they about came in and beat their rival,” he said. “Going into districts, we need to think like that. Just because somebody has a better record does not mean that it cannot be our night and not theirs.”
Indeed, the postseason is basically a brand new season where everyone has the same record and that is how Eldon will approach Saturday. Kliethermes said he likes the direction his team is heading in.
“We have come to a realization lately that nothing really matters but us. Our guys are buying in, they care about each other and just want to put forth their best effort and I think they did that tonight,” he said.
“Tough people are capable of doing some pretty special things and we just have to be really tough and focused these next three days because I am going to tell your right now that Coach Schnicker is going to get his kids ready for Saturday. They are not looking forward to Helias or the next game and are going to come Saturday ready to beat us. If we don’t play well, that is what is going to happen.”