COLUMBIA – Nine boys from Walnut Grove had a date with redemption.
The Tigers won the first high school boys basketball state championship in their school’s history by beating Advance 65-62 Saturday afternoon in Columbia. The Class 1 title win redeems a 69-49 loss to Stanberry in the 2016 state championship final.
Junior Logan Thomazin hit two critical free throws with 37.5 seconds remaining in the game to give Walnut Grove (30-3) the lead it needed to win the game. Walnut Grove’s all-time leading scorer finished with 31 points.
Thomazin’s performance was a far cry from the 2016 final, when he missed every field goal he attempted. This time, he made seven of the 16 3-pointers he attempted.
“I just wanted to come in here and show everybody what all of us are all about. Last year kind of sucked, I still remember it,” Thomazin said. “I still think about it, but this definitely is a way better taste than last year.”
Walnut Grove trailed by six points with two minutes remaining in the game, but coach Darin Meinders didn’t panic.
“I said, ‘guys, we’ve been here. We’ve been behind going into the fourth against Hartville or a Fair Grove, we know what we can do, so stay the course and keep battling,’” Meinders said.
Thomazin then hit a 3-pointer with 1:51 remaining. On the Tigers’ next possession, Ryan Keith hit a 3-pointer to tie the score 62-62.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better state championship—two great teams going head-to-head and battling to the very end. What it came down to was who was going to make the big play late, and our kids made some plays,” Meinders said.
Some defensive stops and free throws from Thomazin made the 65-62 difference.
“It took everyone,” Meinders said. “Every one of us did something to help us get here.”
Hunter Gilkey did a little of everything for Walnut Grove in the title game. He scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had eight steals and seven assists.
“Hunter is a bulldog, he’s a gnat. He plays his tail off and he makes mistakes and frustrates me, but it’s hard to stay too aggravated at him because you know he’s going to come back and do something to help you,” Meinders said. “He’s going to leave everything on the floor and give everything he has.”
Walnut Grove peeled off a nine-game winning streak to close the season with 30 victories.
Advance (26-8) coach Dennis Wheetley agreed with Meinders’ assessment of the championship being decided by big plays late in the game.
“They just made a few more shots than we did,” Wheetley said. “When you get a game like this, it comes down to who hits free throws, who gets rebounds, who gets breaks. They got some breaks.”
High school boys basketball Class 1 state championship
Walnut Grove 65, Advance 62
At Mizzou Arena, Columbia
Walnut Grove 24-13-12-16—65
Walnut Grove—Logan Thomazin 31, Hunter Gilkey 14, Dawson Meinders 9, Ryan Keith 6, Jaron Dishman 5
Advance—Armani Vermillion 25, Dawson Mayo 12, Michael Hood 11, Preston Wuebker 8, Carson Miles 4, Brendan Crader 2.
Walnut Grove girls fall in championship defensive battle
Triumph turned to tears for the orange-clad Walnut Grove fans who stuck around Mizzou Arena for the girls Class 1 basketball championship game.
Mercer (31-1) used suffocating defensive tactics to beat Walnut Grove 43-34 to win its first-ever girls basketball state championship. All-state point guard Bayley Harman scored 16 points for Walnut Grove in the first half, which the Tigers led 20-19. Mercer coach Dan Owens explained how his team shifted its defensive focus to Harman to hold Walnut Grove to 14 second half points. Harman finished with 23.
“We made a switch and did a great job of helping on Bayley Harman, who is just an outstanding player, and we were able to really do a good job and make sure everything she got was very, very tough,” Owens said.
Senior Nicole Kost led Mercer with 14 points. Lindsay Wyatt reached double figures with 11.
Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry also felt Mercer did well defending all-state forward Raylie Hejna in the post. Hejna, a senior, scored nine points.
“I thought our kids’ effort was tremendous, especially defensively,” Henry said. “We started off really well and (Mercer) backed off in certain positions and just kind of doubled down towards Bayley and Raylie especially, and we just couldn’t get shots to fall.”
Owens credited Breanna Main for guarding Hejna.
“She’s played some of the best post players in the state all year long, and Bre is perfectly comfortable shooting one or two shots a game, shooting three or four free throws a game and stopping the other team’s best post player,” Owens said.
Hejna left the court at Mizzou Arena in tears, but the senior said afterward she regrets nothing.
“The last four years, I’ve lived a really good career. I mean, I’ve been (to the final four) for four years now,” Hejna said. “Honestly, this is probably the most fun I’ve had this season.”
Walnut Grove has reached the “final four” six consecutive times, including three consecutive state championships in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
At Walnut Grove, reaching the girls basketball semifinal has become a tradition.
“We know how to get there and we know what we need to do to get there. I think we have a really good coach and he knows what to do,” Hejna said. “Honestly, it’s just a tradition we have. It’s a legacy we want to keep.”
Harman, meanwhile, is a junior with one season remaining in her high school career. She’s already thinking about it.
“My last year, I’m winning. I’m not losing,” Harman said.
High school girls basketball Class 1 state championship
Mercer 43, Walnut Grove 34
Walnut Grove 16-4-7-7—34
Walnut Grove—Bayley Harman 23, Raylie Hejna 9, Grace Miller 2
Mercer—Nicole Kost 14, Lindsay Owens 11, Bailey Owens 8, Morgan Eastin 4, Breanna Main 3, Emily Sample 3.