The start of Wednesday’s boys basketball game between Southwood and Mississinewa couldn’t have gone much better for the visiting Knights.
However, it was the Indians who orchestrated a better finish in earning a hard-fought, 76-65 win over their neighbors from Wabash County.
Southwood blistered the nets in the opening eight minutes. The Knights hit their first six 3-point attempts and made 9-of-13 total field goals in jumping out to a 26-16 lead.
Ole Miss started cutting into its deficit late in the second quarter and pulled within four by intermission, then held the Knights to just eight points in the third quarter to take a 51-49 lead into the fourth quarter.
There Mississinewa used a 7-0 run over the first two minutes to gain some separation and pulled away for the 11-point win.
“This has been a place where our team has struggled a couple times this year,” said Ole Miss coach James Reed. “When we get punched in the mouth and we’re not really sure why, the other team is just playing well.
“We got down, we weren’t playing fantastic but we weren’t playing terrible, they were hitting some shots,” he continued. “We were following the game plan. Our energy could have been a little better but we stayed consistent. We haven’t done that before. ... The first half we struggled but the second half I thought we stayed really consistent.”
That consistency was one of the keys to Mississinewa making its comeback then pulling away in the end.
The Indians shot 50 percent or better from the field in both halves and most importantly made 8-of-15 field goal attempts and 8-of-10 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
Southwood blistered the nets for 61 percent (16-of-26) in the first half, but after making its first six from long range managed to only hit 2-of-11 through the final three quarters. The Knights cooled off to a 10-of-25 performance in the second half.
“I was really happy, especially with the first half. I liked how we accepted the challenge that we were facing a veteran team, they’re at home, they’re a good 3A team,” said Southwood coach John Burrus. “We’re walking in here probably a lot of things going against us. We had some good preparation for this team, we put in a few wrinkles on offense and these guys did a nice job with our offense.
“Dawson Filip, he did great. He covered (Landen) Swanner a lot of the game and he never got a three,” he continued. “He did a good job of still penetrating. He’s a smart player and he’s grown up. He did that and did a great job for them. I was proud we got him off the 3-point line because he’s one of the best 3-point shooters than I’ve ever prepared for.”
Swanner, a 6-2 senior sharp-shooter, entered the game as the Indians’ leading scorer (17.3 points) and had made 50 percent (21-of-42) of his 3-point attempts in Mississinewa’s first nine games. He attempted only one 3-pointer in the game but displayed the growth Burrus spoke of by slashing to the basket for short jumpers and layups to finish with 18 points.
Swanner hit 6-of-11 from the field and all six of his free throw attempts. He also finished with four assists and had three steals.
The Indians were led by 6-3 senior Tai McClung, who benefitted from penetration and passes made by the Ole Miss guards to power his way to 22 points. He pulled down 11 rebounds.
Sophomore guard Donovan Betts provided Ole Miss with its biggest spark in helping fill the shoes of senior Colin Yoder, a normal starter and four-year varsity player who had to quarantine for contact tracing related to COVID-19.
Betts had scored 13 points total coming into Wednesday, but hit a pair of 3-pointers on his way to 10 points in the second quarter and 17 for the game.
Junior Hayden Ulerick made a steal and assisted a Betts layup just 12 seconds before halftime that pulled Mississinewa within 2, 39-37, before Cole Winer knocked down a buzzer-beater to send Southwood to intermission ahead by four.
Betts finished with three of Ole Miss’ six triples in the game, made 4-of-4 free throw attempts and had two assists and two steals.
Betts also drew praise from both head coaches.
“Unfortunately now people know who he is,” Reed said of Betts, before noting a pair of 3-pointers hit to sway momentum against Madison-Grant in the Grant County championship game last week. “… He started off the season really with no minutes and he’s been earning minutes every game.
“Donovan is a special player. He’s only a sophomore and he’s only going to get better playing behind Landen and Hayden,” Reed added. “I’m just really excited about his future.”
Burrus said Betts provided the biggest difference in the outcome.
“Sometimes we miss, in basketball, the secondary scorers. That’s such a key to teams that are really good,” he said, before referring to some of his best teams.
Burrus specifically mentioned Dallas Holmes, a 2019 Southwood graduate who filled a secondary scoring role in the Knights run to the 2018 Class A state championship game.
“Sometimes you have to look to that guy who will score 16 or 17 points and you thought he might score seven or eight,” Burrus said.
“That was probably the difference in the game tonight, what (Betts) did. Those secondary guys, if you don’t have them, (defenses) can really pinch your good players, the good scorers. When you have that in your arsenal, other scorers, it makes it so much easier for your main scorers.”
Filip not only chased Swanner off the 3-point line all game, but he also carried the Knights offensively with 23 points. Carson Rich scored 16 points, Conner Rich chipped in 11. Alex Farr finished with eight points, six rebounds and three assists.
“Southwood doesn’t play (around) and they come to play,” Reed said. “If you don’t play team defense they’re gong to make the night difficult for you. They got us out of rhythm, they made us uncomfortable, which is what good teams do.
“If you’re playing a better team you want to make them uncomfortable and I can say we were uncomfortable the majority of the night,” he added. “That’s kudos to coach Burrus for having his guys ready and a good game plan against our guys.”
Ulerick and Lucas Asbury supplemented Mississinewa’s offense with eight points apiece. Ulerick also had four rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Both Reed and Burrus believe Wednesday’s contest provided some good building blocks for coming games.
“They were doing a lot of one on one stuff and we were caught watching on help side,” Reed said. “We finally bought into it in the second half and kept them out of the middle, then we were able to pressure them a little bit and come back.
“Our defense is our constant and we’ve been practicing so well defensively. Tonight was a little bit of a hiccup for us,” he added. “I’m glad it happened now and we figure out how to win. We’ll work Saturday to get better at it so were ready for Blackford next week.”
Mississinewa (6-4) plays its next four games on the road starting at Taylor Saturday. The Indians travel to Class 2A No. 5 Blackford on Jan. 15.
Southwood (2-5) hosted Wabash Friday and will host Oak Hill on Tuesday.
“I like the fact that we played somebody tough. We simply couldn’t stop them but it didn’t affect our offense to the point where we totally bogged down,” Burrus said. “We were tired late in the game. They’re a physical team, but we still kept attacking the basket.
“We’re going to have games where we have to make shots down the stretch. Like this game,” he continued. “I think this experience tonight will help that because we didn’t back down. We kept playing.”