Jalen Norman’s season-ending knee injury made area teams believe the Nixa Eagles were suddenly beatable.
Thatch Unruh and the Branson Pirates showed it was true.
Unruh knocked down a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer Friday, downing the top-ranked Eagles 67-64, and setting off a wild celebration for the Branson student body.
“It felt a little flat, but it went in,” Unruh said of the game-winner, closing his 31-point night. “That’s the first (buzzer-beater) I’ve hit that means anything.
“That’s the one that I’ll never forget, for sure.”
The win also puts Branson (14-6, 2-0) in the driver’s seat for the Central Ozark Conference Large Division championship, but with plenty of basketball left this month.
Branson did not have any timeouts after Nixa’s Chan Hocklander tied the game 64-64 with a drive to the lane with 33 seconds remaining.
After Branson ran some clock, junior point guard Da’Quan Ervin fed Chandler Hall in the post, but Hall had his turn-around shot blocked by Nixa’s Jacob Ruder. Hall grabbed the loose ball and, as he was falling down, fed Unruh, who was wide open on the left wing.
Unruh let it fly, knocking it down for the upset of the state’s top Class 5 team, according to the coaches’ association.
“He was going to put it up again, but I was screaming my head off to try to get him to pass me the ball,” Unruh said. “I didn’t think he was going to hear me, but he saw me at the last second. I put it up, it went in, and it was just crazy.”
Ervin, a football defensive back who scored 25 points, put a nice tackle on his teammate near mid-court as the Branson faithful flooded the court.
The fourth quarter turned into a free-throw contest as the teams combined to shoot 20, and attempted 17 field goals.
“There was no flow the whole game; zero flow,” Nixa coach Jay Osborne said. “And anytime we started to make a run, we turned the ball over.”
Nixa (16-4, 1-1) had 16 turnovers, but led 49-42 heading to the fourth. Nixa made just three field goals in the quarter, however, and Branson took the lead after a pair of Ervin free throws with 2:45 remaining.
“We knew if we could hang around, we could have a chance,” Branson coach Brian McTague said. “As we told them, this game was not as much about stats as it was about digging deep and having enough pride to get the game won.
“They just made big plays when we had to have big plays.”
The lead changed hands four times after Ervin’s free throws, with Hall’s traditional three-point play with 2:05 left proving crucial, setting the stage for Unruh.
“Needless to say, that was not the Nixa Eagles’ best game they’ve played. That might be one of our worst performances we had in two to three years,” Osborne said. “They had two guys absolutely destroy us and did whatever they wanted. If we happen to play them again, we’ll have to make adjustments.”
The teams could play again in the Class 5 postseason as Branson hosts District 11. Nixa plays Tuesday at Carthage, and Branson plays at Ozark that night.
Ruder had 16 points and 11 rebounds, while his brother, Austin, had 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting. The Missouri State-signee has a sprained thumb on his non-shooting hand and did not make a field-goal attempt from outside of 10 feet.