The Neosho Wildcats have won their last two games, both close games, both at home against Central Ozark Conference Large foes.
So many times earlier in the season, the Wildcats would find ways to lose those close games. For example, the first time Neosho played Thursday’s opponent Carthage in December in the Carthage tournament and lost by one point.
On Wednesday night, however, Neosho proved efficient offensively and came through with enough defensive stops — and made enough free throws — to earn a 59-54 win over a Carthage team Neosho will play for a third time this season in the upcoming Class 5, District 12 tournament.
Carthage and Neosho are the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, respectively, and battle each other for the right to face top seed Nixa in the semifinals.
“A good sign moving forward,” Neosho head coach Tony Branscum said. “Carthage is a torture to play against. Coach (Steve) Ray is tremendous. They executed very well and put us on the ropes, and luckily the clock ran out on them. We were fortunate, but also, we executed really well throughout the evening. Kaden King did a good job getting us into our offense. We got a lift on the post defending (Alex) Martini from Sam Cook and Cade Cradduck.
“It took contributions from all the guys. When we grade out tonight on film, we’ll see a very balanced performance. We only turned it over eight times and so, when we beat Willard, we only turned it over 10 times. Hopefully, our guys can start figuring out the common denominator. They did a very good job (Wednesday) of valuing the ball.”
When the teams play for the third time, it will be for one team to keep its season alive … and the other team will have its season ended.
“Coach Ray is going to have those guys more than ready,” Branscum said. “He’s going to know our stuff better than we know it by the time we play and so we’re going to have to take care of the ball and execute. We’re going to have to be ready to hit our second, third, and fourth options, because our first option will be taken away when we play them again.”
Neosho senior Brady Wise, playing in possibly his final home game, scored a game-high 22 points, including eight points in the fourth quarter. After blanking on a bonus free throw with 1 minute, 9 seconds remaining, Wise stepped up the next chance he got to shoot free throws and hit both of them nothing but net for a 58-54 lead with 13.3 seconds left.
A.C. Marion, Neosho’s most reliable second option all season, came through with 14 points and he made a nifty play in the second half by throwing the ball off a Carthage defender with his back turned, catching the pass to himself, and laying the ball in. Marion hit a pair of free throws in the fourth.
Cole Seward heated up early on for the Wildcats with nine of his 11 points coming by early in the second quarter. Seward would foul out.
Cradduck and Cook defended effectively against Carthage 6-foot-7 sophomore post Alex Martini, rarely allowing anything easy for Martini the entire night.
Just as Neosho had contributions from several players, so did Carthage.
Arkell Smith led three Carthage players in double figures — matching Neosho’s in double figures — with 13 points, while Martini added 11 and Chase Johnson 10.
Tucker Downing and Brett Fullerton each had their turns scoring seven points, with all of Downing’s in the second and all of Fullerton’s in the third. Downing had nearly all of Carthage’s offense in a second quarter that found the Tigers with only 10 points and down 30-23 at halftime.
Ian O’Malley hit a 3-point shot to give Carthage an early 5-0 lead and later converted an old-fashioned three-point play for a 54-51 score with 1:12 remaining.
Neosho improved to 6-17 overall and 2-3 COC Large entering the game Friday night against conference stalwart Ozark, who’s fresh off a 84-28 win Tuesday over Branson — a Branson team that handed Neosho a 69-47 defeat earlier this season.
Carthage dropped to 11-10 overall and 2-4 COC Large. The Tigers are back at it Friday at home against Branson.
NEOSHO 59, CARTHAGE 54
Carthage 13 10 17 14 — 54
Neosho 13 17 12 17 — 59
CARTHAGE (11-10, 2-4) — Arkell Smith 13, Alex Martini 11, Chase Johnson 10, Tucker Downing 7, Brett Fullerton 7, Ian O’Malley 6.
NEOSHO (6-17, 2-3) — Brady Wise 22, A.C. Marion 14, Cole Seward 11, Cade Cradduck 7, Yeej Lee 2, Sam Cook 2, Kaden King 1.