Despite the fact there was absolutely no bearing on conference standings, both Republic coach Treyvor Fisher and Branson coach Brian McTague would have insisted their matchup Friday night was important.
First of all, Republic had notched the majority of its losses in the last month and was looking for a confidence boost. Branson, after seven straight wins and surprising everyone by clinching the outright Central Ozark Conference Large Division championship, needed to find a way to continue its roll.
But after the Tigers’ dominating 59-48 victory, McTague was taking another tack.
“There was no question, if you were watching the game and were an observer, to tell which team was playing harder and it wasn’t us,” McTague said. “Give Republic credit for that. Hopefully this is an eye-opener for us going forward.”
Both teams begin district play next week. Branson, 19-7 overall and 6-1 in the COC, is the No. 2 seed and will host the Class 5 District 11 tournament. Republic (22-4, 5-2) is the No. 1 seed in the Class 4 District 11 tournament at Rogersville.
“We needed this one,” Republic junior Dylan Bekemeier said. “Right after the game in the locker room, we were talking about how for us to reach our hopes and dreams we need to win six more games. The only way that’s going to happen is taking them one game at a time.”
The Tigers — who opened the season 15-1 before dropping games to Rogersville, Nixa and Willard of late — took control of the game from the outset. Bekemeier scored seven of his team-high 14 points in the opening period as Republic built a 16-7 lead after one quarter.
Branson’s Da’Quan Ervin hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter to give the Pirates some life, but Cody Geiger scored six straight points to give Republic a 31-17 lead at halftime. Geiger scored 10 of his 12 points in the half and reserve guard Canyon Smith scored eight of his 11.
“I thought the first three minutes were okay,” McTague said. “We missed a couple of shots and they made a couple of shots and our energy was never the same. And that can’t happen.”
The Pirates whittled away at the lead in the second half as senior guard Thatch Unruh finally started connecting in the third quarter. Unruh’s trio of 3-pointers helped Branson cut the lead to 10 at the end of the period and the Pirates closed to within 48-42 on an Unruh jumper in the lane with 5:42 left in the game.
Republic answered the charge with a Grant Hancock lay-in and a pair of buckets off turnovers by Jake Fletcher to push it back to 54-42. The Tigers won it from the free throw line from there.
“Anytime you are going through the COC, you are going to have bumps in the road,” Fisher said. “What Branson did to win it outright is quite amazing, just with the teams you have to play every night.
“I think we are kind of getting back on the right track and hopefully that leads into district play.”
Unruh led Branson with 20 points and Ervin added 19, but the rest of the pirates only scored nine.