Like the 12 that preceded it in the first half, it was a self-inflicted turnover. But this one hurt, epitomizing the struggles of Smith-Cotton in their own showcase on Thursday night.
With the waning seconds ticking away in the first half, Donovan Schnicker brought the ball up past half court to the right wing. But before he could get a shot off, the whistle blew for a double-dribble violation with 1.3 seconds left on the clock.
Seconds later, he watched helplessly as Branson’s AJ Wiebe’s half-court heave banked in to give the Pirates a 24-12 halftime lead in the opening night of the Smith-Cotton Classic.
The Branson lead eventually hit 18, and despite a second half that saw Connor Moriarty hit 7 of 10 from beyond the arc and score 22 of his game-high 26 points, the Tigers’ comeback bid fell short in a 53-45 loss to the Pirates.
Going back to plays like the miscue to end the first half, Smith-Cotton coach Kevin Schnicker chalked up the poor start to turnovers. And to him, they were inexcusable considering Branson’s soft 3-2 defense.
“Turning the ball over on the offensive end against a zone that’s not putting pressure on us, not trapping and not doing much is just frustrating,” said Schnicker, whose team fell to 3-5 on their home court. “We just didn’t execute until it got out of hand.”
The deficit hit 35-17 three minutes into the second half for the Tigers (5-6), who lost their third straight after starting out the season 5-3 with big wins over then-ranked O’Hara and Camdenton.
But fueled by two treys from Moriarty, a 3-pointer from Brady Ritzert and a basket in the post by Jon Anderson, the Tigers ended the quarter on a 11-0 run to cut the lead to 35-28.
“We got the looks that we wanted early in the second half and we made the adjustments to get our offense into a rhythm and knock down some shots,” said Schnicker, whose team went 2-1 in last year’s classic. “From there we gained some defensive energy and worked ourselves back into the game.”
The momentum continued to the fourth quarter, where the run of unanswered points hit 17 as Smith-Cotton climbed to within one on back-to-back Moriarty 3-pointers.
“He did a great job and he was feeling it,” coach Schnicker said. “You want him to shoot it because he is hot.”
But Thatch Unruh answered with two of his team-high 16 points, nine of which came in the second half, and a hobbled Da’Quan Ervin swiped Moriarty and scored on a breakaway to stretch the lead to 39-34.
Moriarty again answered with a trey from the top of the key, but the Tigers got no closer. The Pirates iced the game at the line, shooting 12 of 14 to pull away from a drained Smith-Cotton squad.
“I thought we used so much energy to get back into the game that we didn’t have any left down the stretch,” coach Schnicker said. “Then when we had to foul, they made their free throws.”
While they blistered the charity stripe to the tune of 78 percent (14 of 18) in the fourth, the Pirates (6-10) didn’t attempt a free throw in the first three quarters. Instead, they lived behind the 3-point line. And it suited them well as the Pirates scored 18 of their first-half 24 points on 6 of 13 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Tigers, meanwhile, were 0 of 7 from long distance. And they weren’t just missing from 3-point land. They shot 1 of 9 in the first quarter to fall behind 8-2 and ended the half shooting just 5 of 17.
“We should have done a better job attacking that 3-2 zone,” coach Schnicker said. “We just didn’t shoot the ball well early on, and the turnovers compounded that.”
The Tigers, however, don’t have much time to dwell on the mistakes, not with a matchup against Class 5’s second-ranked Rock Bridge looming at 7:15 tonight.
“They’re a great team and we’ll see what we’re made of,” Schnicker said. “We just can’t build too much of a hole and expect to fight back.”