After seeing a 17-point cushion nearly evaporate, the Joplin Eagles didn’t panic.
Instead, the hosts regrouped and finished strong.
Answering a late-game surge with one of its own, Joplin earned a 79-69 win over Ozark on Tuesday night in Central Ozark Conference boys basketball action inside Kaminsky Gymnasium.
“Our kids put themselves in a position to win, saw the lead go away and then made plays at the end,” Joplin coach Jeff Hafer said. “I’m really proud of them.”
The Eagles led 52-35 midway through the third period before the Tigers trimmed their deficit to one with three minutes remaining. By making winning plays down the stretch, Joplin (15-5, 4-1 COC) closed the game on a 17-8 burst to stay near the top of the conference standings.
“I was really pleased with our play down the stretch,” Hafer said. “We stopped playing passive. We got back to playing downhill. We made better decisions, got to the rim and made free throws down the stretch.”
Joplin had three players score at least 20 points as Zach Westmoreland had 22, Always Wright added 21 and Dakarai Allen had 20. Isaiah Davis gave the Eagles four players in double figures with 10. Hafer credited Isaac Meeks and Will Rader for contributing off the bench.
A.J. Elliott led Ozark (13-8, 3-1 COC) with 15 points, while Tyler Harmon added 14 and Ethan Whatley chipped in 11.
Both teams went to the foul line often in the physical clash, as Ozark made 20-of-28 foul shots and Joplin hit 24-of-32 charities.
The Eagles scored the last four points of the back-and-forth opening frame as Davis scored in the paint and Westmoreland threw down a dunk in transition for a 23-18 advantage.
Getting out in transition and taking advantage of a number of Ozark turnovers, Joplin put together a 13-1 burst in the second quarter, with Westmoreland scoring seven during the surge. By the break, the Eagles led 42-28.
“I thought we played great in the first half,” Hafer said. “We gave up some things at the end of the half, but Ozark’s good. They kept chipping away.”
Down 17, Ozark put together a 17-4 spurt, including nine unanswered points. The Tigers were able to take advantage of Joplin’s turnovers and foul trouble while also attacking the basket.
“We were still playing hard, but our decision-making wasn’t great,” Hafer said. “We didn’t take care of the ball or missed transition buckets. We had too many live-ball turnovers. And Ozark’s motion is hard to guard. They make you work on the defensive end.”
The Tigers were within one at 61-60, but the Eagles rattled off five straight points to gain some separation as Wright and Davis made free throws and Westmoreland streaked to the hoop for a key layup with two minutes left. Joplin finished the game on a 8-2 run.
Ozark coach Mark Schweitzer noted he was proud his team was able to make a run after falling into a significant hole.
“We stopped playing scared,” Schweitzer said. “Their athleticism intimidated our kids and we were soft. We weren’t aggressive, and credit Joplin. It took our kids way too long to figure out that they could combat their athleticism. They had us on the ropes, but I’m glad our kids fought back. I’m a little disappointed we didn’t put up a better effort in the first half, but I’m proud we didn’t quit.”
The Eagles bounced back nicely after last Friday’s disappointing 69-39 loss at Nixa.
“To our kids’ credit, they showed up and practiced on Sunday,” Hafer said. “We talked about things. ... That game wasn’t us. We’re still right where we want to be. This was a great response. They were ready to play.”
Ozark beat Nixa 84-79 earlier this month.
“That's what makes the COC so tough,” Schweitzer said. “It’s a tough league. You’ve got one unbeaten and a bunch of teams with just one loss now. This race is anybody’s to win. It’s going to come down to the final week.”
Joplin hosts Republic (17-5, 5-0 COC) at 7:30 on Friday night.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Hafer noted.