The Southwest Trojans ended a 25-year drought on Tuesday, Feb. 21, claiming their first outright Ozark 7 Conference basketball championship since 1987 with a tense 50-48 victory over the visiting Wheaton Bulldogs.
The Trojans tied Thomas Jefferson for the league title two years ago. Southwest has now won or shared the conference title seven times.
It was Senior Night in Washburn, and seven of Jason Horn's Trojans were introduced to the home crowd in pregame festivities. There have been many great individual players at Southwest over the years, but many consider this to be the best senior class in school history. But all that would seem hollow praise if the Trojans failed in their quest for the conference title.
"Winning the conference championship was one of the goals we set for ourselves this season," said Coach Horn. "It's a great feeling when you get to this time of the season and you start to accomplish those goals."
Wheaton entered the game with the same goal in mind. The Bulldogs pulled off a cardiac comeback against Purdy the night before to give themselves a shot at a share of the conference title. Trailing Southwest in the standings by a game, the Bulldogs needed to win the last two games of the season, and pray for help from Exeter to squeeze past the Trojans in the standings.
Wheaton won the Ozark 7 last year, and Rusty Roe has established himself as one of the best big-game coaches in the area. For a little extra hype, both teams were state-ranked entering the contest: Southwest, eighth in Class 3 and Wheaton, 10th in Class 2.
Southwest exploded to a 12-0 lead as five different Trojans scored in the first three minutes. Bubba Galvan finally broke the ice for Wheaton, sprinting behind the Southwest defense for a runout layup at the 4:28 mark. The Trojans regained the 12-point advantage when Skylar Knoll stuffed Wheaton's Sean Goostree, and then Travis Hayworth converted free throws on the ensuing possession.
"I thought we played about as good as a team can play in the first four or five minutes of the first quarter," said Horn. "Our pressure was really getting to them, forcing them into some turnovers and rushed shots."
The Bulldogs shrugged off the double-digit deficit and outscored the hosts 8-3 to end the quarter. The Trojans led 17-10 at the break.
Knoll attacked the basket and scored to start the second period, and Southwest moved back in front by 9 points. Wheaton chipped away at the advantage behind the scoring of Jory Bartkoski, Tyler Musick and Jesse Mitchell. Southwest's defensive scheme smothered Goostree in the first half, holding the Wheaton star to a single field goal, one night after he torched Purdy for 30 points.
Jordan Epling scored with 1:37 on the clock to give the Trojans a 28-21 lead, followed just seconds later by a Bartkoski layup. Tyler Ferguson's free throw gave Southwest a 29-23 edge with just seven ticks left in the half, but Bartkoski rattled home a long trey at the buzzer to cut the lead to 29-26 at intermission.
In the third quarter, Goostree finally found a rhythm, scoring 6 points for the Bulldogs. Knoll matched that with his half dozen in that same time period. But it was Epling who turned the tide in favor of the Trojans. Epling, the only non-senior starter for Southwest, rained back-to-back three-pointers late in the quarter to open another 9-point lead for the home team.
Southwest carried a 45-36 lead into the final break.
But the Bulldogs would not roll over. Roe's troops opened the fourth quarter with a 10-4 run that cut the lead to just 49-46.
Two scoreless minutes later, Bubba Galvan raced for a fast break layup, and Southwest's lead was down to just 49-48.
Epling hit the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with just 20 seconds on the game clock to give the Trojans a 50-48 edge. Wheaton had one last try to tie or win, but Goostree's desperate trey in traffic rimmed out at the buzzer. The Trojans escaped with the cliffhanger victory.
"The last two minutes of the game and the fourth quarter in general were very uncharacteristic for us," said a relieved Horn after the game. "Generally, our guys do a good job of managing the clock late in the game and making free throws, but tonight, we struggled with that aspect of our game.
"I told the guys after the game that it wasn't perfect but it was a win, and good teams find a way to win when things aren't falling for them," Horn added. "We were able to do that tonight."
The win boosted Southwest's season record to 20-4.
Southwest scorers: Jordan Epling, 16; Skylar Knoll, 14; Tyler Ferguson, 8; Travis Hayworth, 7; James Pettit, 3; and Jeff Elkins, 2.
Wheaton scorers: Jory Bartkoski, 14; Tyler Musick, 9; Sean Goostree, 8; Bubba Galvan, 7; Jesse Mitchell, 5; Kyle Robbins, 3; and Justin Walker, 2.
Lady Trojans down Wheaton, 57-28
The Southwest girls stunned the Wheaton Lady Bulldogs with a 25-6 opening quarter and then cruised to a 57-28 victory.
Southwest's Michaela Mitchell was the game's leading scorer with 18 points, with seven of them coming in the final period.
Southwest scorers; Michaela Mitchell, 18; Taylor Mettlach, 15; Nicole Ickes, 10; Montana Hendrix, 6; and Cady Swindle and Shannon Mitchell, 3 each.
Wheaton scorers: Shelby Medley, 8; Mariah Kochell and Kasey Littlefield, 6 each; Daisy Alvarado, 4; and Kelly Alvarado and Kylie Brown, 2 apiece.