The Cassville Wildcats won the 77th annual Bolivar Liberator Tournament on Saturday, defeating Fair Grove, 65-52. The fourth-seeded Wildcats beat Buffalo by an identical 65-52 score on Wednesday and then turned back top-seeded Webb City in a 57-55 Friday thriller to reach the championship game.
There was an aura of disbelief at Bolivar High School on Saturday even before the third place game between Webb City and Morrisville tipped off. The matchup between the Cardinals and the Panthers was seeded to be the championship game, but Cassville and Fair Grove trashed those picks on Upset Friday.
Webb City stumbled to consecutive upset losses as Morrisville claimed third place in the tournament, and then Cassville and Fair Grove took the court.
The notoriously slow starting Wildcats fell behind, 4-0, and went almost two minutes without scoring. Axl Larson drilled a trey from the top of the circle, and then Joel Maher's long offering from the right wing tied the game at 6-6 with 4:32 on the quarter clock.
Jerrod Harmon regained the lead for the Eagles but then Ricky Nichols came up with a steal and whipped a no-look pass to Larson to finish the break and force another tie at 8-8.
Chris Smith and Larson both canned treys late in the period as Cassville took a 14-10 lead. But Fair Grove scored the last 7 points before the break and led 17-14 to start the second quarter.
Matt Loyd scored with an offensive rebound to start the second period, and the Fair Grove run reached 9-0. Trailing 21-18, Josh Lewright scored on an inbounds lob from Nichols to cut the lead to one point. Cassville took a 22-21 lead on a pair of Larson free throws with 2:41 left in the half.
Lewright scored on a half court penetration drive and then Maher tapped out a long defensive rebound. Larson took the ball in full stride and raced to a fast break layup and a 26-21 Cassville lead.
Although Nate Hawkins scored for Fair Grove to cut the lead to 26-23 at halftime, momentum was clearly in Cassville's favor.
Matt Loyd scored on a backdoor lob to cut Cassville's lead to 26-25 as the third period started. Lewright answered with a determined hook in the paint, and Nichols dribbled coast-to-coast and finished with a teardrop to push the lead to 30-25.
Lewright's fast break layup with 4:23 left in the quarter established a 7-point Wildcat lead at 36-29. Nichols made it an 8-point game later, swishing free throws for a 40-32 advantage at the 1:56 mark. But the Eagles outscored Cassville 8-4 to end the period, with sophomore Deric Link hitting a pair of gutsy three-pointers, and the Wildcats led by only 44-40 at the final break.
Linc scored again to open the final period, this time on a jumper from the left elbow. Less than eight minutes away from consecutive tournament titles, Cassville saw its lead dwindle to just 2 points.
But the 'Cats responded with an 11-2 outburst to take control of the game. Larson hit a trey and then Evan Stubblefield whirled on the baseline and swished a turnaround jumper. Nichols and Maher scored from the field, and Nichols sank a pair from the line to open a 55-44 lead with 2:38 to play.
Fair Grove's Harmon traded baskets with Maher to create a 57-46 game with 2:07 left. The Eagles frantically tried to trap on defense as Cassville wore out the clock, and Chris Smith applied the dagger with a trey from the left corner.
Loyd scored two baskets in the final 25 seconds for the Eagles, but Cassville earned the victory, 65-52.
The Bolivar Tournament does not recognize an All-Tournament squad or an MVP, or the Wildcats would have been carting home more hardware.
Cassville scorers: Axl Larson, 19; Ricky Nichols, 15; Chris Smith, 12; Josh Lewright, 8; Joel Maher, 7; and Evan Stubblefield, 4.
Fair Grove scorers: Matt Loyd, 17; Jerrod Harmon, 15; Deric Link, 10; Luke Bernet, 4; Sean Winder, 2; Jared Green, 2; and Nate Hawkins, 2.
The Wildcats have five more regular season games remaining. Cassville plays at McDonald County and Aurora before coming home for the final two home games against East Newton on Feb. 11, and against Monett on Feb. 15. Cassville is also scheduled to play Mt. Vernon in a make-up game on Feb. 10.