After a series of ho-hum semifinals at the Keady Classic in Larned - three of the four games were decided by at least 20 points - an electric buzz filled Larned Middle School in anticipation of the boys' championship game Saturday night. In a rematch of last year's title game, the host Indians brought home their first Keady Classic title in 13 seasons with a 36-32 win over St. John.
"It's been a long time coming," said Larned coach Jerrod Smith. "We haven't beat St. John for long a long time. They've been very, very good, and they're still very good. I have a great group of kids who are determined and this was one of their goals. They wanted to win this tournament and they will themselves to it."
As any championship game should, this one went down to the wire. Larned senior Chance Sanger scored off a turnover early in the fourth to give the Indians a 30-20 lead. Three minutes later, St. John entered the bonus and senior Marshall Woolf knocked down a pair of free throws.
Things got hectic after that. Tournament MVP Mason Perez drove to the rim to push the lead back to 32-26 with 1:37 to play, but Woolf answered back at the other rim to keep the deficit at four. The Tigers forced three Larned turnovers over the next 60 seconds, the final resulting in an inbounds basket from St. John big-man Tanner Halling. That cut the lead to 32-30 with just 26 seconds remaining.
Two rebounds from Sanger sealed the win for Larned. The first came off a free throw miss from Mello Bryant. Sanger's offensive board gave Bryant the opportunity to sink two free throws with 15 ticks left. On the other end Sanger grabbed one final rebound that resulted in his two free throws. Woolf added a drive for St. John as the horn sounded but the Indians claimed the win.
Sanger was also big early on with a 2-for-2 effort from behind the arc in the first quarter. Senior Brock Skelton added four points in the frame as the Indians jumped out to a 12-4 lead.
Points continued to be sparse in the second quarter. Perez earned his tournament MVP with seven points. Halling was the only other player with multiple baskets in the quarter and Larned held on to a 19-12 lead at the half.
If Larned lived by the three in the first quarter, they nearly died from it in the middle frames. Perez hit a trey in the second and Sanger added a three in the third but the Indians shot just 2 of 13 from the outside in that 16-minute stretch.
"It was a little sloppy at times," Smith said. "We didn’t do a very good job against their zone because of how long it is. We stood a little too much and settled on 3-point shots. We really didn't use our athleticism to get to the rim. So we've got some things to learn but we're going to continue to get better. I'm really happy with the effort."
The Indian defense, however, did what it needed. Perez took a steal the distance late in the third for a 24-16 score. Halling added a putback late to keep the deficit at seven with a quarter to play.
"We've turned over every team we've played so far 20-plus times," said Smith. "We turned them over 22 times. As active as we are defensively, that limits some of their possessions and gives us some opportunities. But we have to get more disciplined in the half court. I really thought the game tonight, the tempo was in St. John's favor. It slowed way down. We didn't get out and get those transition points and that's why it was so low scoring."
The 6-7 Halling finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks for St. John. Woolf added eight points. Senior guard Joel Ortiz had four rebounds in the first half before going down with an injury two minutes into the third quarter. The game was delayed some 20 minutes as Ortiz transported by ambulance to the local hospital.
Perez and Sanger each scored 13 points for Larned. Perez added a game-high nine rebounds to go with a handful of steals and blocks. Bryant scored all five of his points in the fourth quarter, including a big three, and Skelton finished with four points.