It took the Greenwood Blue and Gold seeding committee to do what coach Steve Hunter and three early losses had struggled to do — convince the Ozark Tigers that the status quo wasn’t enough.
Upset with a No. 7 Blue Division seed handed down Wednesday by the committee, the inspired Tigers upset Kickapoo 71-64 Friday night in a key district matchup at Ozark High School.
“We wanted to show everyone we weren’t very happy with that seven seed in the Blue and Gold,” senior guard Jakob Neidig said. “We feel like we are better than that and we feel like we were disrespected.
“Ozark basketball is better than a seven seed.”
What the Tigers failed to do Tuesday night — a 61-42 thumping at the hands of Hillcrest — and managed to do against the Chiefs was put up a convincing argument. Ozark (4-3) put up a lackluster effort against the Hornets, but the intensity was much different on Friday.
“It really wasn’t even the same team,” senior guard Tyler Clanton said.
The Tigers spread the scoring evenly Friday and knocked down big shots when they necessary. Nick Cookinham led the team with 18 points, but his three 3-pointers in the third quarter started Ozark on critical 15-2 run.
Kickapoo had built a 35-31 halftime lead with a two-man wrecking crew. Senior guard Tyler Bussell knocked down five 3s and scored 20 points and senior forward Chris Ward added 13 as the Chiefs (4-2) were in control most of the half.
“I was worried in the first half because Bussell was hot and we’ve got to double-team Ward,” Hunter said. “I told them at halftime (Bussell) will cool off a little bit. Then we tried to go at Ward and get him in foul trouble and we were fortunate to get him on the bench.”
Cookinham nailed all three 3-pointers from the left side as the Tigers took advantage of Ward’s fourth personal foul — and a technical on Kickapoo coach Dick Rippee — with 7:36 left in the game to build a 56-44 lead.
“Every time we’ve seen them this year, they didn’t shoot it that well,” Rippee said. “To their credit, they stepped up and made baskets. “When I questioned the foul on Chris and got the technical, that hurt our team.”
Kickapoo climbed to within six several times in the fourth quarter, but Ozark answered from the free throw line. After struggling the first three quarters, the Tigers sank 11 of 17 in the final period to hold off any Kickapoo rally.
It was a near-perfect display of balance by the Tigers. Besides Cookinham, Clanton added 16, Neidig had 14, Brett Kriskik scored 13 and Korbin Evans came in off the bench and added nine.
It was a different story for Kickapoo, which relied way too much on Bussell and Ward. The 6-foot-5 big man finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Bussell drained eight 3-pointers on his way to a 30-point night. The rest of the Chiefs combined for just 13 points.
Ozark’s depth is starting to make a statement, a scary thought for a No. 7 seed in the Blue and Gold, which begins Dec. 26.
“I don’t think we should have been the seventh seed,” Clanton said. “It was a shocker, but we had played like that and played like that’s what we deserved.
“This is definitely going to show some people it’s not the right seed.”