BY TRAVIS DAVID
SPRINGFIELD — After staggering for 11 rounds, Monroe City was finally dealt a knockout blow Saturday night. The Class 3 No. 3 ranked Panthers took punch-after-punch from top ranked Hartville during the MSHSAA Show-Me Showdown 3A Championship game inside JQH Arena on the campus of Missouri State University.
But it wasn’t until the final minute that Hartville was able to deliver the knockout punch in a 43-35 win over the Panthers.
The loss ended a 27-3 season for Monroe City and the second-place finish is tied for the best showing in school history.
“Regardless of what happened I was going to be proud of our kids,” a somber Monroe City coach Brock Edris said. “We would have liked to have been on the other side of this and our guys are disappointed right now, but later on this week they will realize exactly what they accomplished.”
Said Hartville coach Brett Reed, “We just won a war tonight…that was quite the battle.”
Hartville led 6-5 after the first eight minutes of play as both defenses set the tone.
Kyle Hays gave the Panthers a 7-6 lead on a jumper from the right elbow with 6 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first half.
But in what turned into a common theme for the game, Hartville answered back.
Ryce Piper sank a pair of free throws for an 8-7 lead for the Eagles with 5:39 remaining on the clock.
Hartville would not relinquish the lead the rest of the game.
Eli Cook gave Hartville some momentum at the half as he beat the second-quarter buzzer with a jumper from the extended free-throw line and a 16-11 edge over the Panthers.
“That was a big shot,” Edris said of the buzzer beater. “I think we fouled a kid on a three-pointer a few moments earlier and they hit two free throws out of it. So if you take away those two possessions, it may have been a 12-11 game at the half.”
Much like Friday night’s semi-final win over Summit Christian Academy, Monroe City struggled offensively in the first half. The Panthers connected on just 5 of 16 shots over the first 16 minutes of the game.
Logan Buhlig and Joshua Talton scored for Monroe City on its first two possessions — and shots — of the third quarter.
After the Eagles pushed the lead back to 22-15 with 5:05 left in the third, Hays converted an old-fashioned 3-point play before Jaedyn Robertson scored on the block to pull the Panthers to within 22-20 with 3:38 left in the period.
But Cook slipped through the Panthers’ defense with a shot at the rim before Piper came up with a steal and finished with a slam for a 26-20.
Josiah Talton and Joshua Talton kept the Panthers close as both dialed up long distance, but again the Eagles answered with triples of their own.
“That’s just due to us having a group of seniors on the floor,” Reed said of his team’s knack to answer back. “We have been down this road before in close games our schedule prepares us for these types of moments but our kids never crack, they are used to the moment. They don’t mind the big-time moment, they find ways to come up with the big-time plays and they showed that again tonight.”
Hartville led 32-26 heading into the final eight minutes of play.
Monroe City had been no stranger to fourth-quarter deficits. The Panthers made comebacks in each of their last two games to get to the state title game. And it looked like there was going to be a third.
After Hartville opened the fourth with a 3-pointer for a 9-point lead — the largest of the game — Robertson answered with a bucket before Buhlig connected from behind the arc to pull the Panthers to within 35-31.
Buhlig’s triple came with 6:17 left in the game.
The two teams traded turnovers before, according to Edris, the Panthers made a rare mental mistake.
“I am not sure if it was because the scoreboard is up top and not where we are used to seeing it, but I think we lost track of the situation for a minute,” the Panthers’ coach said of an empty possession with four minutes left in the game. “But we kind of freelanced it there and Hartville made us pay.”
A finish at the rim by Buhlig did cut the Eagles lead to 37-35 with 2:07 left in the game, but the Eagles held Monroe City scoreless the rest of the way.
“I thought we had them on the ropes for a moment,” Edris stated. “And maybe had them a little nervous for a bit. But when you get here you have to play well and earn and Hartville definitely earned this one tonight.”
The Eagles finished the season with a perfect 31-0 record. Dating back to winning their final 11 games last season which ended with a Class 2 state championship, Hartville has now won 42 straight games.
“It didn’t end up a one-possession game but we were right there within a possession of the No. 1 team in the state for a long while,” Edris said of his team’s effort. “I think our kids earned a lot of respect from people who like to watch good basketball. And I think our kids are going to come back next year driven and try and win it all.”
Monroe City graduates Logan Buhlig and manager Cody Wagner.
Buhlig led the Panthers with a team-high nine points in the season-ending loss.
“It was good to see Logan bounce back with a good game tonight,” Edris said of his senior. “Logan and Cody leave behind a legacy here and a lasting imprint on not only our program but to all the younger kids who look up to them as well.”
Piper (13) and Cody Mahan (12) combined for 25 points for the Eagles. Hartville will graduate all five of its starters.
Hays added eight points in the loss for the Panthers while Robertson (6) and Joshua Talton (5) combined for 11 points.
Edris also wanted to thank the Monroe City faithful.
“Our small community was great,” the Panthers’ coach said. “We are beyond thankful that they made the over four-hour trip down here to support us. To look up there (in the stands) and see all the black and gold was awesome.”