BY TRAVIS DAVID
PALMYRA — When things are not going well offensively, Monroe City can usually hang its hat on the defensive side of the ball.
That proved true again on Thursday in the semifinals of the Tony Lenzini Tournament against No. 4 seed Highland. The Panthers turned defense into offense throughout the game and staved off a late rally by the Cougars for a 55-45 win.
Monroe City turned over the Cougars 12 times in the third period, which led to a 15-6 advantage on the scoreboard for the period. The 9-point difference extended the Panthers’ lead to 41-24 heading into the final eight minutes of play.
“That is something we always pride ourselves in,” Monroe City senior Logan Buhlig said of the defense. “We are always working extra on defense in practice and it paid off tonight.”
Early on it was the Highland defense who shined. The Cougars forced Monroe City into misfires on five of its first six shots from the field.
Highland grabbed a 6-2 lead as Monroe City’s only field goal in the first minutes of the game came on a steal and layup by Kyle Hays in the opening 90 seconds of the game.
“I was impressed with how Highland came out,” Monroe City coach Brock Edris said of the Cougars. “They played well and made things difficult for us.”
Then Buhlig caught fire. After three free throws by Joshua Talton and Deion White, Buhlig scored the final eight points of the quarter for the Panthers. The senior hit a three from the top of the key for an 8-6 lead followed by converting a steal into a layup before capping the frame with a corner-three.
The 11-0 run to end the opening frame gave Monroe City a 13-6 lead.
“We do a good job of moving the ball and my teammates always know where to find me,” Buhlig said of his spurt. “They do a great job of making the extra pass to free me open for shots.”
Buhlig also mentioned the slow start may have been caused by a lack of focus prior to the game.
“Highland came out ready to play and I think we were having a little too much fun before the game in the locker room,” the senior admitted. “We got it figured out but we have to be ready to play and play stronger sooner from now on.”
Buhlig scored four of the Panthers’ first six points to start the second as the advantage blossomed to 19-10.
Moments later, Josiah Talton drained a step-back three as the Panthers’ lead grew to 24-12 with 2:44 left in the half.
Highland pulled to within 26-18 at the break.
Then came the game-changing third period.
Joshua Talton came up with three of his six steals, for the game, in the third — two of which he converted into layups. Talton had been held without a made field goal in the first half but hit three in the third including a pair of old-fashioned 3-point plays. Talton’s second 3-point play of the quarter followed a blocked shot by White and the play gave the Panthers a commanding 41-24 lead heading into the final eight minutes of play.
But Highland would not go away. The Cougars opened the final frame on an 11-0 run — seven coming from Drew Mallett.
Buhlig’s fourth trey of the game capped a quick 5-0 answer for the Panthers for a 46-35 lead with 3:40 left on the clock. Again the Cougars answered back.
Alex Meyer hit back-to-back 3-pointers to spark an 8-0 spurt which cut the Panthers’ lead down to 46-43 with just over two minutes remaining.
“I am thankful we had the lead we had going into the fourth,” Edris said. “That comeback was impressive…they were playing with their backs against the wall but they showed up and hit some big shots. It was hard to get them stopped.”
Fittingly, Monroe City sealed the game with defense. Joshua Talton came up with his sixth and final steal of the game which led to a White bucket in transition for a 49-43 lead with 90 ticks left in the game.
After Highland missed the front end of a free throw, Hays found Buhlig cutting towards the basket for a layup with 51 seconds remaining for an eight-point lead.
Buhlig finished with a game-high 24 points.
“He is a good player who can really shoot the ball,” Highland coach Brock Butler said of the Panthers’ senior. “He can do a lot of good things for them and trying to slow him down along with the Talton’s, is tough.
“But I was proud of the way our kids battled back tonight. We played with the No. 3 ranked team in our class…we know we can play with just about anybody, but we just turned the ball over too many times in spurts tonight.”
Mallett led the Cougars (9-5) with 20 points, while Meyer and Cameron Bringer added 10 points apiece.
Monroe City forced Highland into 19 turnovers for the game with 12 coming off of steals. The Panthers also blocked six shots and took a pair of charges.
“We were able to do some good things defensively tonight, but we still have to play more efficiently on the offensive end of the floor,” Edris said.
Joshua Talton finished with 14 points, while White added six points, five rebounds and two blocked shots.
“Deion played well,” the Panthers’ coach said. “He got some big rebounds and did a lot of good things for us. Now we all just have to continue working hard and finding ways to click.”
Monroe City will face rival Palmyra in Friday night’s championship game.
Highland will face Hannibal in Friday’s third-place game.