ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The Jefferson Eagles and the Mound City Panthers had already matched up three times this season with the Panthers picking up narrow victories each time. The Eagles had no interest in another nail-biter in the sectional round of the state playoffs.
“We don’t like losing,” Jefferson junior Steven Chor said.
The Eagles (25-4) ran away from the Panthers (27-2) on Tuesday night at Civic Arena in St. Joseph with a 61-45 victory. The win not only avenges the three losses to Mound City this season, but the district championship game a year ago when the Panthers knocked out the Eagles.
“Confidence is the main difference,” Jefferson junior Chase Farnan said. “We played as a team and we knew that defense was going to decide the game. We came out and played with a lot of intensity and we played our best.”
Early on, it looked like the Eagles might be in trouble again as Mound City was flying around the court defensively and forcing turnovers. A breakaway dunk by Landon Poppa gave Mound City an 8-5 lead.
After a Koby Stoll foul shot, Tim Jermain’s only substitute used the entire game until the final minute, junior Dalton Luke, paid major dividends. Despite battling Chor to be the shortest player on the court, Luke scored on a put-back to tie the game.
“He always comes off the bench and does a great job,” Jefferson coach Tim Jermain said.
After a Mound City basket, Luke converted through contact for the tie again. The first quarter ended with a 12-12 deadlock.
Mound City took the first lead of the second quarter, but that proved to be the final lead they held as Farnan answered with a bucket and Chor picked up a steal and out-raced everyone to the basket for a layup.
“All we had to do was out-run them,” Chor said as the game was played on a college court. “The floor was a little bit longer, we had a little more energy and we could just out-run them.”
Landon Poppa tied the game back up, but Nathan Jermain’s second three of the game kept the lead with the boys in blue. After Mound City trimmed it to 19-18, Jefferson created their first breathing room of the night with a 6-0 run sparked by four points from Farnan.
Poppa and Stoll traded baskets to end the half as the Eagles’ lead was 27-20.
The lead climbed to 31-22 on another Farnan basket, but the Panthers struck back with a 6-0 run of their own to trim the lead to 31-28. Suddenly the Mound City crowd was full of life while Jefferson’s grew quiet and both sides remembered the close games of the past.
“I thought especially in the North Platte Tournament, we tightened up,” Tim Jermain said. “Not really played scared, but you could tell we were almost expecting something bad to happen. We talked a lot after that game that against good teams, they are going to make runs and you just have to respond to that.”
The Jefferson junior Clayton Merrigan lined up a three from the left wing with three minute left in the third quarter.
Splash. The lead was back to six on Merrigan’s first made field goal of the evening.
“When we get a good shot, shoot it with confidence and he did a great job of that,” Tim Jermain said. “That was a huge shot at a really pivotal moment of the game.”
Farnan followed with a basket for a 36-28 lead. Mound City didn’t go away quietly as Poppa scored to open the fourth quarter and slice the margin to five, but then the Eagles exploded.
“We may have wore them out a little bit in the first half and we still had all our energy,” Chor said.
Despite playing just six players and Mound City having the deeper bench, the Eagles tired the Panthers out and another Merrigan three and a pair of Farnan foul shots got the Jefferson lead to double figures for the first time at 43-33.
“I feel like free throws, we’ve been preaching in practice that it is a mental game and we’ve been shooting them every day,” Farnan said. “You go up to the line, that means they are giving you free points. That is the mentality we had.”
Mound City eventually whittled the lead to 44-37, but baskets from Merrigan, Nathan Jermain and Stoll salted the game away and made the lead 13 with 2:12 left. The Panthers answered with a Noah Young three-point play, but Jefferson came back with an 8-0 run to make the lead 18 and seal a trip to the state quarterfinals.
“You play your hardest every minute you are out there and good things are going to happen,” Farnan said.
The Eagles were led in scoring by Nathan Jermain with 14 and he was followed closely by Farnan with 13 and Chor and Merrigan with 12 apiece. Stoll added six and Luke had four.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Eagles as they draw undefeated Winston (26-0) on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Civic Arena in St. Joseph.
“We will enjoy it tonight, then refocus tomorrow,” Tim Jermain said. “We are going to play another really good team on Friday.”