Defense paves way for Thayer's second tourney win of season
While it was certainly no surprise that the top-seeded Thayer Bobcats made it to the final round of the 35th annual Liberty Invitational Tournament (the Cats had made it to the championship game four out of the last five years), their opponent was a bit of a shock; the homestanding Mountain View/Birch Tree Liberty Eagles, the tourney's six seed.
The Eagles had made it to the finals of their own tournament for the first time since 1999 by upsetting second-seeded Alton and third-seeded Springfield Central, thanks to some timely shooting from behind the 3-point arc.
However, in the final round against Thayer Jan. 21, Liberty found out that not only was its 3-point shooting out of business, goals of any kind were in lockdown mode as the Cats used a smothering defense to claim the championship trophy with a 52-26 thrashing of the Eagles.
Not only did the Bobcats (13-0) hold Liberty scoreless from behind the 3-point stripe on the night, Thayer also gave up just four 2-point field goals during the game's first two periods, grabbing control and running to victory.
With the game squared at 2-all in the early going, Thayer ripped off seven straight points to jump on top 9-2 in the first period.
The Eagles' intentions were clear from the get-go; run as much clock as possible on each offensive possession to keep Thayer from turning the game into a track meet.
This worked to some degree in the first half, a half that saw plenty of gritty defense from both squads.
The Bobcats received a big shot of juice right before the end of the first period that they rode all the way to halftime.
With Liberty trailing 11-6 and in possession of the ball on the way to its hoop, Brett Ward (16 points) blocked a shot attempt by the Eagles' Chase Yarber and the ball ended up in Eric Veatch's (two points) hands. Veatch tossed the ball downcourt to Jacob Sims (four points), who promptly drained a big trey at the first period horn to push Thayer on top 14-6 after one.
It was more defense in the second period as the Cats limited Liberty to just two field goals and five points in the frame.
Layne Hawkins (15 points) had a productive stanza right before the half, posting Thayer's last five points of the second, including a triple that extended the Bobcats' lead to 21-11 at intermission.
With the Eagles finding their outside shot taken away, and with the Bobcats controlling traffic in the paint, Liberty found points equally scarce in the third period.
Thayer outpaced Liberty 16-8 in the third to take a commanding 37-19 advantage into the final frame.
An 8-0 burst to begin the fourth put the game on ice for Thayer.
Hawkins got things rolling with a layup, Ward hit a pair of free throws and M.J. Clark (eight points) rang up his second 3-ball of the second half, pushing the Bobcats in front 44-19 on the way to a 26-point victory for their second invitational tourney title (after winning the Cabool Holiday Tournament in late December) of the season.
John Tollenaar finished with six points for Thayer, with Bret Cotham adding one.
In the semi-final round, the Bobcats jumped all over the fourth-seeded Houston Tigers early and rode to a 57-43 victory Jan. 19.
Thayer spotted Houston the game's opening bucket and then went on a deadly 22-1 run to grab the reigns and hold control.
Ward (12 points) had seven points during this run, while Clark (six points) added two 3-balls and Hawkins (13 points) drained one triple.
Houston stopped this run with a pair of free throws late in the first, but Thayer held a 22-5 lead after one.
Things slowed up a bit for Thayer in the second, with Ward setting out the frame due to a couple of fouls picked up in the first period.
The Tigers outpaced Thayer 16-8 in the second, but thanks to Thayer's fast start to the game, the Cats still held a 30-21 lead at the break.
Tollenaar got Thayer back on solid footing early in the third with a couple of quick hoops that pushed the Cats in front 24-23 with 6:12 left in the third. Tollenaar paced Thayer with 14 points on the night.
Veatch closed the third strong with four of his nine points for the game, and the Bobcats held serve 42-27 heading into the home stretch.
Houston pulled within 11 points, 48-37, at the 4:44 mark of the fourth, when Thayer hit the Tigers with seven straight points to regain control and end the night with a 14-point win over their old South Central Association friends from Houston.
Sims finished with two points for Thayer, while Cotham posted one point.
In opening-round play, the Bobcats pushed past Willow Springs 61-46 Jan. 16.
Tied at 9-all after one period of play, Thayer outscored Willow Springs 38-21 over the course of the second and third periods to emerge with victory.
Ward led all scorers with 24 points, while Tollenaar followed with 16 points, and Hawkins 10. Veatch had six and Sims two. Clark and Ben Martin finished with one point each.