A finish that was almost all about guards and not Springfield Kickapoo behemoth Chris Ward still didn’t swing in favor of Branson and its much-heralded combo of DaQuan Ervin and Thatch Unruh.
Instead, Springfield Kickapoo’s assortment of role players along the perimeter matured into leading men, outplayed what was being billed as the best backcourt in southwest Missouri and helped hand the Pirates a 68-66 Class 5 District 11 semifinal loss on Thursday.
“Their guards are good and they’re young,” Ervin said, noting the Chiefs had a pair of sophomores handling the ball in crucial situations. “I’m looking forward to seeing them again in the future.”
Kickapoo’s stars of tomorrow responded to post-season pressure as well as the Chiefs could have hoped for. They certainly didn’t waste any time taking advantage of two Branson miscues that loomed ever so large. Kickapoo converted on back-to-back uncontested layups that pushed the Chiefs’ lead to nine points with 3:15 to play and dictated plenty over the final three minutes.
With Branson in catchup mode and forced to foul, Kickapoo didn’t need to hit another field-goal. The Chiefs’ final six points came at the free-throw line,
Kickapoo’s aforementioned layups were also freebies, with the Pirates not having a single player get downcourt defensively quickly enough to apply any semblance of pressure.
“Kickapoo took advantage of us not getting back on defense,” coach Brian McTague said. “We made critical mistakes at the end of the game that you can't make at this time of the year.”
“You’ve got to get out quick and get back, but nobody got back on defense,” Ervin said. “That was bad timing, at the end of the game with only three minutes left. It changed the game around.”
“You’ve got to make sure you at least foul them and make them earn it,” center Chandler Hall added. “But they got loose and they finished. In a game like this, you can’t make mistakes, or it’s going to be the end of your year. You have to try to be flawless. But we made mistakes at the end of the game that we normally don’t make.”
Branson rallied, but didn’t get a shot off with 10 seconds to play and down by three. Unruh lost control of the ball as he penetrated into the paint.
“He was trying to make a play,” McTague said. "We had an opportunity a couple of times late, but didn't make enough plays.”
Kickapoo’s lone senior among its guard corps, Tyler Bussell, spearheaded a defensive effort on Unruh that was as good as any Pirates opponent put together all season. Unruh didn’t hit his first field-goal until the third quarter and ended 2-of-10 from the field, including 1-of-6 on his 3-point attempts, while scoring just seven points.
Unruh was averaging 19 points a night. He fell 23 points short of the 1,000-point milestone.
“They had a gameplan and executed it very well from the first tip,” Unruh said. “They were face-guarding me the whole game. When I caught it, they doubled me. (Bussell) is great. and they put a lot of pressure out on me and had help waiting for me when I tried to get to the lane. Every time I tried to drive, there was a second defender coming at me.
“We’d seen box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses. But that was the first double-teaming we saw all year. They stopped our motion and made plays down the stretch. They deserved to win the game.”
Kickapoo made 6-of-8 free-throws in the final 1:15, after missing the front end of two bonus trips at the foul line.
Branson put itself in position to try for a tie in the final seconds, thanks to a Kendall Willard 3-pointer and four points in 14 seconds from Ervin, who had a game-high 24 points.
The Pirates put up 24 points in the third quarter, after managing just 27 all of the first half. Hall kept the Pirates close by scoring 13 of his 16 points in the first half. He finished with four 3-pointers, after having only 16 in 27 regular-season games.
“We’re lucky he made shots or we would have been down big,” McTague said.
Hall proved deadly from any corner.
“I’ve been working on that shot, got some open looks tonight and got lucky by knocking them down,” Hall said. “I wished I had one more.”
The Pirates had a similar sentiment about free-throws. They had a prime chance to have free-throws make a difference by being in the bonus with three minutes still to go in the third quarter.
Branson was 17-of-19 at the charity stripe. But free throws were a wash, as Kickapoo was 17-of-25 at the foul line.
“I wish we would gone to the free-throw line a couple more times in the fourth quarter,” McTague said.
Ward topped Kickapoo with 18 points, but had just two in the fourth quarter. Matt Ridder netted 17, Jack Simpson 15 and Bussell 10.
“We did a good job on Ward, but allowed some of their kids to get to the goal too many times and we left them open on the 3-point line,” McTague said. “They still had to make shots and they did. Give them credit.”
The Chiefs move on to meet Nixa in Saturday’s championship game at 7 p.m.
KICKAPOO (68) — Batiste 1 1-4 3, Deap 1 1-2 3, Simpson 4 5-6 15, Ward 7 4-5 18, Bussell 2 4-6 10, Ridder 6 2-2 17, Burland 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 17-25 68.
BRANSON (66) — Ervin 7 9-9 24, Daniels 4 4-6 12, Willard 1 0-0 3, Unruh 2 2-2 7, Russell 1 2-2 4, Hall 6 0-0 16. Totals 21 17-19 66.
Kickapoo 13 17 18 20 — 68
Branson 14 13 24 15 — 66
3-point goals — Hall 4, Ridder 3, Bussell 2, Simpson 2, Ervin, Unruh, Willard.