There was a different feel in the air on Friday night as the Neosho boys basketball team lined up to take on McDonald County. The atmosphere was already electric as fans packed both sides of the gym to the rafters for the homecoming showdown between neighboring rivals.
They cut the lights in the gym as the Wildcats' starters were introduced to deafening roars from the hometown faithful. It had a big-production feel, and when the lights came back on, the Wildcats, entering the game in search of their first win of the season, put on a big-production performance, topping the Mustangs 53-43.
All of the energy that had been building in the stands during the festivities poured onto the court once the final buzzer sounded as the Neosho student section rushed the court in celebration.
"The team just really played well," Neosho freshman Lukas Werneke said. "We knew what we had to do. We knew we had to play hard and play good defense, and we did all of those things throughout all four quarters of the game."
In a game that seemed to hang in the balance with each possession, it was the Mustangs who led most of the way. In fact, they held a slim 36-33 advantage at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats would eventually take over in the final two minutes of the contest.
Having held the lead for a brief time in the early stages of the third quarter, the Wildcats wouldn't get it again until a jumper from Werneke drew the Wildcats within one (36-35) before freshman Brett Williams buried a 3-pointer in front of Neosho's bench with 4:36 left to give the Wildcats a 38-36 advantage.
The Mustangs would then tie it on a basket by Drey Fickle with four minutes to go before Neosho's Logan Stuart set the dagger with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to make it 41-38. Stuart's bomb set off a 7-0 Wildcats run that pushed it to 45-38 and marked the final lead change of the game.
The Wildcats closed the affair on a 15-5 tear and outscored the Mustangs 20-8 in the final period, which included a 12-of-18 stretch from the free throw line.
"Our defense was really solid," Wildcats coach Jason Horn said. "We probably got caught up early in the emotions and the crowd, but we did a good job settling down."
A big difference in the Wildcats' performance on Friday, as opposed to the last time these two teams met on Dec. 27 at the Neosho Holiday Classic, was the physical brand of basketball exerted by the Wildcats. Physicality was lacking from the Wildcats in the last contest, and the Mustangs went on to win that one, 54-45.
"That's what we have to do to be successful," Horn said of the physical play. "I think if you've seen any of my teams play the past six years at Washburn, we were a physical team, and these guys are starting to buy into that. We don't call fouls in practice."
Page 2 of 2 - After nearly knocking off Joplin in their last game back on Jan. 15, the Wildcats certainly seem to have bought into the program and appear to be rapidly improving.
"None of this is possible without coach Horn," Werneke said. "He's completely changed the offense, the way we are outside, on and off the court — he's completely transferred the program and it's for the better, definitely."
Horn, however, credited his players for buying into his program and believing in themselves, though he cautioned that there is still much progress to be made before the Wildcats are where they need to be.
"If you look at us game-one to now, we're a different team," Horn said. "At the first of the year we had two plays we could run … now we have multiple sets we can run. There's only going to be good things down the road as they keep buying into this, but that's the key; they've got to keep putting in the work and decide that we're going to make basketball a big deal here."
Early on it appeared the Wildcats would have another uphill battle as the Mustangs jumped out to a 6-0 lead and led 13-8 at the end of the first quarter. Neosho came back with a solid second quarter and tied the game at 22 entering halftime thanks to a 6-0 run capped on baskets from Chris Paullus, Caden Hendricks and Darrian Guillory.
The Wildcats took the lead briefly in the third quarter on baskets by Hendricks and Werneke before the Mustangs went back in front on a basket by Austin Grotts, and kept it that way the remainder of the quarter. Werneke, who had just two points in the last game against the Mustangs, was a big factor on Friday with 15 points, including two 3-pointers.
"My first game against Mac County I was almost a non-factor, so I knew I had to come out tonight and play a big game," Werneke said. "Whether it was scoring or defensively, whatever I needed to do just to help the team win."
The Wildcats were led offensively by freshman Darrian Guillory, who finished with 20 points. Guillory spent most of his night at the free throw line where he took 19 foul shots, making 12. Stuart, meanwhile, finished with five points while Paullus had two, Kaden Roy three, Andy Lett one, Hendricks four and Williams three.
Grotts, a 6-foot-5 junior, had a big night for the Mustangs with 14 points from inside the paint. He did all of his damage in the second and third quarters where he had six and eight points, respectively. Fickle followed suit with 11 points while Drew Harmon finished with eight, Tyrel Lett three, Josh Serr two and Jake Wood five.