In a grind-it-out game controlled down low by Republic, it was only fitting the game-winner came on a wild scramble under the hoop.
Appropriately, one of the senior post players for the Tigers made the play, sending Republic to Saturday’s Class 4 state final.
Marcus Miller scored the winning basket with 6.5 seconds remaining, a couple of seconds after missing his first try, lifting Republic to a 39-38 victory over Liberty North on Thursday at Mizzou Arena.
“It was my first (game-winner),” Miller said. “We crashed the offensive boards and we work on rebounding every day in practice, so I knew we would have people down in there to keep it alive for some hope.”
He delivered on the second effort, sending the Tigers (27-4) into Saturday’s 3 p.m. final against Normandy, a game which should be a contrast in styles, as Normandy scored 74 on Thursday in its overtime victory against Sikeston.
On Thursday, the mirroring half-court styles of Republic and Liberty North delivered on its promise of evenly matched teams, and lack of full-court action.
Possessions were long and baskets were precious as Republic battled to a 25-19 halftime lead.
Grant Hancock and Miller combined for 10 points in the first half and 10 more in the second, also holding Liberty North center Brinkley Jolly to a six-point effort, 7.4 below his season average.
“These guys (Miller and Hancock) have been unnoticed all year,” Republic coach Trevyor Fisher said. “I couldn’t be more proud of these guys, both from an offensive and mostly from a defensive standpoint.”
Liberty North (23-6) battled back in the third quarter, as an 11-0 run fueled by three straight 3-pointers gave the Eagles a 34-28 lead with 2:49 left in the third.
But the Eagles would score just four points in the final 10:49 of the game.
“Not one time did our kids think that we were not going to win that game,” Fisher said. “Credit these guys for fighting tough, rebounding, playing defense and making clutch plays down the stretch.”
The Tigers whittled away at the lead in the fourth, despite limited possessions on both sides.
Republic’s Ty Abney tied the game at 36 with a pull-up jumper with 4:02 to play.
After a Hancock free throw gave Republic the lead, Kyle Malone put Liberty North up 38-37 on a score with 1:15 remaining.
After Dylan Bekemeier tied up a rebound after his own miss to retain possession, Republic missed another jump shot.
However, a Liberty North player was called for traveling after losing his footing near the baseline.
When asked about the play in the postgame press conference, Liberty North coach Chris McCabe wouldn’t comment, but seemed to say enough.
“I don’t think (we) want to go there,” McCabe said. “There’s a deal in (the Missouri State High School Activities Association) that says you have to stay positive. We’re going to stick to that.”
With the ball under its own basket and 9.8 seconds left, Fisher called a play for Miller under the rim.
Bekemeier found him, but the rushed 6-foot-7 center missed a contested shot from close range. Cody Geiger couldn’t handle of the rebound, and the ball found Miller again.
This time, he laid it home.
“The ball just perfectly got tipped to me, and I was fortunate enough to make that last shot,” Miller said.
Added Fisher: “I think there was a little sweat on that ball the first time. It got wiped away when he got it the second time.”
Liberty North had a shot to win, but mishandled a pass and had to settle for a fadeaway 3-pointer at the buzzer that fell way short.
Now, the Tigers have a chance for the second boys basketball state championship in school history, 50 years after its first in 1963.