Go ahead and give Carthage’s five-point win Thursday night to the seniors.
The Tigers, the top seed in this week’s Class 5, District 12 boys basketball tournament, outlasted fourth-seed Joplin 55-50 at Carthage High School, sending Carthage to Saturday’s district championship game.
And though the Tigers led by as many as 12 points and as few as four in the fourth quarter, seniors scored the final 12 points of the game to avert Joplin’s upset bid.
“Late February basketball,” Carthage head coach Steve Ray said. “You’ve got to have your seniors carry the load for you. They definitely did.”
Carthage led by eight points after three quarters, and jumped ahead 41-29 after senior Zach Strubberg and junior Nathan Reid scored to open up the fourth.
Reid’s dunk at the 5:12 mark put the Tigers ahead by 10, but Joplin started whittling away at the lead. A Strubberg free throw with 4:47 left to play gave Carthage an eight-point lead, then a basket by senior Desmond Buerge less than 30 seconds later kept the Tigers ahead by eight.
Joplin sophomore Charlie Brown scored and was fouled with 4:06 remaining, and his free throw made it 46-41, but Buerge scored from five feet at the 3:34 mark, and added a dunk 20 seconds later to extend the Carthage advantage to nine points.
Joplin junior Adam St. Peter made two free throws to pull the Eagles within seven, but Buerge responded with a basket eight seconds later and the final two minutes were largely played from the free throw line.
Joplin senior Sam Williams made a free throw with 1:14 left to bring the Eagles within eight, but Buerge added a free throw at the 1:07 mark to push the lead back to nine, 53-44.
Williams scored with 57 seconds left, then added a three pointer with 18 seconds on the clock, making the score 53-49. Carthage senior Sam Hilton made a free throw with 15.2 seconds remaining, then Brown made a free throw for Joplin to keep it a four-point game with 8.5 seconds left.
Senior Luke Gibson was fouled with 6.3 seconds left and made a free throw for a five-point lead, and that was more than enough to give Carthage spot in the title game at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I thought Zach Strubberg made some nice plays down the stretch,” Ray said. “Luke Gibson and Kyle Reed, they’ve got to handle the lion’s share of the basketball, and of course Desmond was great. I was so proud of Desmond. I think district tournaments are won by guys who are willing to put the team on their back, and he did that tonight.”
Carthage led 12-10 after the first quarter, only trailing after a three pointer by Brown put the Eagles up 10-9 with 2:52 left in the first. Joplin jumped ahead 13-12 on a three pointer by Brown early in the second, and the Eagles led 15-14 after another basket by Brown, this one with 6:58 left in the half.
The game was tied at 17 after Joplin junior Abraham Hueller made two free throws at the 5:04 mark, but Buerge made a three pointer, freshman Jaryd Coss added four points, Reed scored on a layup after a steal and Buerge finished the half with another bucket, this one with two seconds left.
It all added up to a 28-21 halftime lead for the Tigers.
The win marked the third this season for Carthage when facing Joplin. The teams met in the championship game of the Carthage Invitational, and then at Robert Ellis Young Gymnasium at Missouri Southern.
“They’re a good basketball team,” Ray said. “They’ve gotten better. Give them a lot of credit. I was proud of our guys. We didn’t play great, but I thought we played really tough. There were a lot of things that started going against us at the end there. We couldn’t make free throws, we were picking up fouls, but our guys hung tough and I was proud of that.
“I’m real proud of (sophomore) Darren Prater,” Ray said. “He’s played limited minutes all season. He comes in and does a great job. He came in two different circumstances and I thought he did a great job for us tonight.”
Ray said his team, which lost in the district championship game at Willard last season, is hungry.
“It really motivates these guys,” he said. “I know they’re going to be fired up on Saturday. I think they also know we can play better, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Buerge led the Tigers with 27 points and was the only Carthage player in double figures. Coss scored eight, Strubberg finished with seven, Reid scored six, Hilton and Reed added three points each and Gibson finished with a point.
Williams led Joplin with 20 points, and Brown scored 16.