OZARK – He got off to a dreadful start, but Jacob Ruder proved he’s a finisher.
Ruder swished a step-back 3-pointer off the dribble with one second remaining on the game clock to lift Nixa to a 57-54 win on the road over rival Ozark Tuesday night. Ruder managed just three points in the first half, but went off in the second half to score 17 and finish with 20. His last basket came from three feet beyond the 3-point arc.
“It felt pretty good, but after the night shooting like I had, I didn’t know if it was going in or not,” Ruder said.
The win proved emotional for the Eagles, who received a surprising show of sportsmanship and community from Ozark before the game. The Tigers presented the Nixa team with a commemorative poster honoring Logan Middleton, who was a standout in basketball for the Eagles and a 2014 graduate of Nixa High School. Middleton was killed in a November vehicle accident, and the Eagles have paid tribute to him several times this season.
Both teams shared a moment of silence and some handshakes and hugs prior to the game in Middleton’s honor.
Nixa coach Jay Osborne passed up a chance to call timeout with 15 seconds remaining in the game and his Eagles with the basketball. He called a play that the Ozark defense stifled, which led to Ruder’s improvisational 3-pointer.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to let players make plays,” Osborne said. “He’s hit shots all year for us. He’s hit last-second shots at the end of quarters all year. It looked good when it left his hand, I know that.”
Thomas Nelson had a big night for Ozark. The senior forward scored 21 points to lead all scorers. His game-tying layup with 2:44 remaining in the game knotted the score at 51 and caused a roar from the crowd.
“I thought Thomas Nelson did an awesome job and I don’t think he gets enough credit. I don’t think he gets enough credit in the area and from other coaches,” Ozark coach Mark Schweitzer said. “Every team that we’ve played knows who Thomas Nelson is after we play them, and he had another wonderful night.”
For Ozark (18-5), the game marks the fourth loss this season by 10 or fewer points. Schweitzer and his players are frustrated, but they credit a good play when they see one.
“Jacob Ruder hit an awesome shot, that’s why he’s one of the best players in the state,” Schweitzer said. “You lose that way, it’s tough to take, but the kid hit a great shot.”
Nixa extends its winning streak, despite playing an offense at times that was as sloppy as the slush in the parking lot at Ozark High School.
“(Ozark) played good defense, but we had stupid turnovers that we shouldn’t have had and it just wasn’t a very good game on our part, but we found a way to win,” Ruder said.
• Nixa girls 63, Ozark 50: Toshua Leavitt led Nixa with 28 points in a road win, but walked off the floor with a scowl.
Leavitt says she was frustrated with some late intentional fouling by Ozark and some bad blood in general between the two rivals. After cooling down, she put Nixa’s victory into perspective.
“I’m really glad that we got the ‘W.’ It was a great senior win and we beat them two years in a row, so that just makes it better,” Leavitt said.
Nixa coach Jennifer Perryman was happy with Leavitt’s play in a rivalry game.
“(Leavitt) is a game winner and she’ll hit some shots when she needs, but I thought she also turned up her defense too and that’s something I’m always in her ear about,” Perryman said.
Ozark put sophomore Bre Johnson as a shadow on Leavitt to try to limit her effectiveness.
“I thought Bre worked really hard and chased her, and Leavitt had to work for everything,” Ozark coach David Brewer said. “We put some questions up and (Leavitt) had answers for everything.”