EWING, Mo. — The Highland boys basketball team hadn’t reached the finals of its home tournament since the 2014-15 season. Drew Mallett and the rest of the Cougars ended that drought on Thursday night.
Mallett scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to guide fourth-seeded Highland to a 49-48 victory over top-seeded Palmyra, climbing back from as much as eight points down in the fourth.
“Drew is the kind of kid that everyone wants on their team,” Cougars coach Brock Butler said. “He is going to give you his all, all the time. He can make those late shots in that 15-foot area. The kids knew that he started to get hot and were like, ‘We need to get the ball to Drew.’”
Mallett finished with a game-high 21 points for Highland (7-2), a performance Palmyra coach Ryan Wood tipped his hat to.
“He just made some tough shots,” Wood said.
As for his own offense, Wood said it never found its rhythm.
“We struggled offensively all night, especially in the second and fourth quarters,” Wood said. “It just seemed like we went on droughts for a long period. It’s a tough loss, but congrats to Highland. They played hard and deserved to win tonight.”
Highland now moves on to face Kirksville in the Highland Tournament finals on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Panthers (5-3) actually held a 17-14 lead late in the second quarter, but the Cougars went on a 9-0 run to end the second half and roll into halftime with a 23-17 advantage.
What led to the late outburst, Butler said, was Highland’s willingness to share the rock.
“We preach all the time this is team ball, this isn’t me ball,” Butler said. “We are a lot better team when we move the ball, share the ball, and get it going inside and out.”
Getting the ball inside is what helped Palmyra regain the lead in the third quarter. After going scoreless in the first half, senior forward Abe Haerr scored eight points in the third quarter and the Panthers led 32-30 heading to the fourth.
“He did some good things there in the third quarter, I thought we were getting the ball into him and Adam Goodwin both for some dump passes and easy shots,” Wood said. “We just kind of got away from it there in the fourth quarter. We had very few ball reversals or post entries and it hurt us in the end.”
Part of that was because of changes in defensive scheme for the Cougars in the fourth.
“We knew we had to make changes on the fly. You have to throw different bodies at a kid like (Haerr),” Butler said. “Throw some muscle on him every now and then, put what we call ‘our height’ on him. Just mix it up on him.”
Haerr only scored two points in the fourth quarter to finish with 10 for the game. Zane Meyers led the Panthers with 11 points in his first action since the winter break and on limited minutes as he recovers from a leg injury sustained in the football season.
Palmyra had a chance to take the lead late, holding the ball with 16 seconds remaining and trailing 49-48. Both Wood and Butler called timeouts to prepare for the final possession, but a missed assignment led to a busted play and Mallett was able to tie up the ball and deny any Panthers shot.
“The ball probably went to the wrong spot and we got a little confused and a little panicked and didn’t get a shot off,” Wood said. “That’s something we need to work on, obviously.”
When the final buzzer sounded, the Cougars celebrated their first trip to their home tournament final in half a decade.
“The kids wanted it bad,” Butler said. “We told the kids, ‘There’s nothing like playing on a Saturday night in a tournament championship, let alone your own tournament championship in your own gym.’ I don’t know when the last time Highland beat Palmyra, or the last time Highland even got to play in their own championship in their home tournament.
“The kids were excited after the game and I can’t blame them. I was excited too.”