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Its championship day in the heart of Lawrence County as the Miller Cardinals took on the Billings Wildcats for the Miller Tournament championship. After a thrilling third place game that saw Galena edge out Jasper, Miller was looking for their first MIT championship since 2009.
Owen Weiss got a good start to the mission as he took the opening tip and sunk a three ball immediately after giving Miller the lead early. After Colton Brown extended the lead to 5-0 Billings responded with two buckets to cut it back to a one point game. After buckets from Weiss and Jarod Lung, Billings responded with the biggest run of the opening quarter as Brock Harter got an and one to go along with a Justin Bos layup and a Grant Heimer free throw, Billings secured a 6-0 run and a 10-9 first quarter advantage.
Heimer opened the scoring with a basket that gave the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game early on at 12-9. Weiss nullified that lead with his second three ball of the opening half. That started a barrage of threes as Kameron Clark from Billings and Lung each followed up with one and we were knotted up at 15 each. Weiss wasn’t done from deep in the first half as he got another one to fall giving the Cardinals an 18-17 lead back with two minutes remaining in the half. Miller used that Owen three to a 8-0 run to end the half behind a putback from Nate Hill and another three from guess who, Owen Weiss for his 14th point of the half as Miller went into the locker room with a 23-17 lead.
Defenses stepped up in the third quarter and neither squad was able to make up much ground. Billings’ balanced attack continued as all five starters got to 5 or more points but no one hit double figures. Miller was able to keep the lead behind a pair of threes from sixth man Deacon Fris who missed Thursday’s game due to an injury. Miller allowed a bucket from Chance Shaffer at the end of the quarter but still led 31-30 going into the final period.
Billings exploded to open the fourth quarter much in part to dominating the offensive glass. A 7-0 run capped off by a Schaffer and one put the home team down 37-31 and threatened to put it away for the Wildcats first MIT championship. A pullup jumper by Fris cut the lead back down to just four but Blake Long hit a three for the Wildcats after a pair of offensive boards extended the possession yet again. After a turnover from Miller, Bos got a backbreaking and one to go to extend the lead to 44-33. Miller looked to be completely out of the game until Fris got another pair of threes to fall to cut the lead to 44-39 with about 90 seconds left in the game. After several missed free throws by the Wildcats, Nate Hill got a free throw to fall to cut the deficit to four. Back to the other end Billings hit a free throw but got the rebound and immediately got fouled to go back to the line. Bos hit them both to go up 47-41. Fris played hero again, hitting another three with thirty seconds left on the clock to cut the deficit to three. Miller once again fouled and put Billings on the line with 15 seconds left. The Wildcats missed both of them and Miller called a timeout. As time was expiring, Weiss was looking to score but found a wide open Fris that nailed his sixth three of the game but none was bigger as this one tied the game with six seconds left. After a timeout, Miller nearly had a shot to win it as Weiss forced a turnover and threw up a half court prayer that bounced off the front of the rim and we headed to overtime tied at 47.
Miller won the overtime tipoff and pushed it ahead to Paul Nunez who started the scoring after a pump fake drive gave Miller the early lead. Billings responded with a Heimer three for his 14th point of the game and to give the Cats the 50-49 advantage. The lead didn’t last long as Weiss hit his fifth three of the game and Miller’s 12th of the game breaking the single game record set by Miller back in 2019. But more importantly, it gave Miller the 52-50 advantage midway through the overtime period. After missed shots on both ends, Billings tied the game back at 52 after free throws from Dylan Edwards with just over a minute left. Miller tried to melt some clock and turned the ball over but would hold Billings to a miss. The ensuing possession, Miller ran more clock. Weiss drove to the bucket with about eight seconds left and drew a foul with six seconds remaining. After leaving the first one short, he was good on the second to give Miller a 53-52 lead. Billings had an opportunity to win it at the buzzer with an open man on the block but Nate Hill got his hand on the ball to disrupt the pass and to survive to win the MIT championship for the first time since 2009.
“I’ve been using this word a lot but we showed a ton of grit today. Especially in the fourth quarter. To be down nine with less than two minutes left and keep battling and keep battling and Deacon coming on fire. We have no quit in us and yeah that was a big one.” Coach Weiss said.
The Cardinals had been close to winning the tournament as recently as finishing third last season but for the Cardinals, This one meant a lot.
“I have no words right now. It means the world to us to get the trophy in our home tournament. The adrenaline rush we got and just fed off each other and we got it done.” Junior leader Nate Hill said following the win.
“Winning this means a lot.” Coach Weiss said. “Before the game I put the third place trophy from last year in front of them and said look at where we were last year and where we are now. We are battling for first. The atmosphere was awesome and having the student section rush the floor when we got the trophy is special. There were a lot of records broken in this tournament and the kids winning the tournament is special.” Weiss continued.
Deacon Fris led the Cardinals for the first time this season with 20 points all coming in the second half followed by 19 points from Owen Weiss. Jarod Lung finished with five points just ahead of Colton Brown’s four. Nate Hill got three points to fall and rounding out scoring was two from Paul Nunez.
Scoring for the Wildcats was led by Grant Heimer with 14 points followed by Chance Shaffer with 11. Dylan Edwards used a big second half for his nine followed by Justin Bos with eight. Brock Hanter got seven to fall. Wrapping up scoring was Kameron Clark with two and one from Kaiden Blakemore.
This game had five players named to the MIT All-Tournament team starting with Chance Shaffer and Grant Heimer from Billings and Owen Weiss and Jarod Lung from Miller. Miller’s Deacon Fris was named the tournament MVP. Also earning All-Tournament team honors is Blake Thomas from Fair Play, Cody Jones from Galena, Jasper’s Wyatt Durman and Sarcoxie’s Garrett Smith.
“It feels amazing!” Fris said of earning the MVP award. He continued, “I didn’t think I deserved it because it was just a second half of the last game but it feels good. We got the win and it can propel us forward. It taught us trust as a team. If we trust each other, we can’t lose.”
Miller improves to 9-5 for the season and will be back in action Thursday as they travel to 10-3 Southwest. Billings falls to 9-7 but will have a chance to avenge the loss Tuesday as they host Exeter.