Not only was it a showdown of South Central Association rivals, the championship game of the 13th annual McDonald Panther Classic at Mountain Grove Jan. 28, a clash that pitted Thayer against Mountain Grove, also featured a battle of two state-ranked teams that have been on a hot streak as of late.
The Thayer Bobcats, ranked number six in Class 2 hoops, had yet to suffer a defeat in 14 outings, while the homestanding Mountain Grove Panthers (14-3) currently hold down the number six spot at the Class 3 level.
On this night, the top-seeded Panthers had the last say, as they handed the second-seeded Bobcats their first setback of the season, with Mountain Grove winning the Panther Classic 63-47 behind the 22-point performance of two-time All-State and Tournament MVP Brett Collins.
Mountain Grove opened and closed the game with strong outbursts, outscoring Thayer 21-8 in the first period, and outpacing the Cats 18-4 down the stretch in the fourth period, en route to the tourney title.
It took a pair of big free throws from Eric Veatch, coupled with a pair of buzzer-beating misses by their opponent, but the Bobcats managed to elude the Mansfield Lions by a count of 43-42 in the semis Jan. 26.
Veatch (eight points) sank two charity tosses at the 11-second mark of the fourth period to provide the Cats with a big victory.
With Thayer holding a 42-40 lead after Veatch's free throws, the Lions got the ball quickly downcourt and Kendall Findley shot a 3-pointer from the top of the key with eight ticks left in the game. Findley's shot missed the mark, but the ball bounded back into his hands on the right wing, where he jacked up another trey. This game-tying attempt, too, was off the mark. Mansfield did get a hoop on a stickback of Findley's last errant 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was not enough, as Thayer held on to win by a single point, 43-42.
The run to the wire in the final period was almost as exciting as the game's final seconds turned out to be.
With the score locked at 34-all midway into the fourth, Layne Hawkins came up big for the Bobcats.
First, he busted his third trey of the night at the 5:06 mark, and then he drove the lane and knocked down a left-handed dipsy-doo layup to push Thayer on top 39-34. Hawkins paced the Cats with 13 points.
Mansfield pushed its way back into contention on a Findley trey and pair of free throws that squared things at 39-all.
Brett Ward (12 points) broke free on a baseline curl for a hoop with 2:43 left that moved the Cats in front 41-39.
Findley then sank a charity toss that pulled the Lions within one, 41-40. But on his next trip to the stripe, with 1:09 showing on the clock, he missed the front end of a one-and-one that would have tied the game.
With Thayer in control of the ball and 26 seconds left in the game, and with Mansfield having just four teams fouls, the Lions had to foul three times in an 11-second span just so they could send the Cats to the free throw line.
When Thayer did get there with 11 ticks left, Veatch cashed in with a huge pair that paved the way for his team's tight victory.
John Tollenaar (eight points) set the tone for Thayer early in the first period with his squad's first two hoops of the evening.
With the Lions on top 7-4 late in the first, the Bobcats responded with six straight points to cap the frame with Thayer holding a 10-7 lead after one.
The second period was equally as close, with neither side able to open up much breathing room.
A Hawkins 3-ball gave the Bobcats a four-point lead, 15-11, at the 4:52 point of the stanza, but with 58 ticks left in the half, Mansfield had managed to lock the contest at 19-all.
Jacob Sims and Ward knocked down a pair of free throws each, while the Lions posted a 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds of the half, sending the teams to intermission with Thayer grasping a 23-22 advantage.
The Bobcats maintained control of the lead for the duration of the third period, and the Bobcats took a 34-32 lead into the fourth period, managing to fend off the Lions and advance to the championship round.
In first round action Jan. 23, Ward tossed in 18 points to help lead Thayer to a big 59-37 win over Hartville.
The Cats jumped on top 15-9 after the first period, and then closed the book on the Eagles by outscoring them 21-6 in the fourth period.
Hawkins and Ward were named to the All-Tournament team for their play at Mountain Grove.