CAMDEN — Joe Smith doesn’t want opponents circling his team on their schedule and counting it as an easy win, as has been the case for Tri-County North’s boys basketball team over the past several years.
The Panthers sent a loud and clear message they are a team to be reckoned with after handing previously unbeaten Preble Shawnee its first loss of the season in the championship game of the Preble Shawnee Holiday Tournament.
North connected on 22-of-27 free throw attempts to hold off the Arrows, 62-53, on Saturday, Dec. 30, and win its first-ever holiday tournament championship.
“It’s awesome,” Smith said of winning the title. “It’s a great feeling. I played in the tournament. I played in the championhip game. To win it, it’s amazing. I knew what my game plan was with how athletic and how good Shawnee is. Not that I doubted myself or my players, I just hoped that we executed like we should and we did.”
The contest featured four technical fouls, three against Shawnee and one against North as players from both teams weren’t willing to back down and the officials appeared to struggle to keep the emotions in check.
“It was crazy,” Smith said of the hostile environment. “It was an atmosphere that I really wasn’t expecting. They’re fans are diehard. They’re all about their basketball here. In my eyes as a coach or even as a player that’s great to play in. Really, it pumped my kids up even more because they fed off that.”
Smith said the game meant a lot in trying to turn his program around.
“I told my guys this game meant a ton. This meant a ton for Tri-County North. In my eyes, they are the class of the field in the SWBL,” Smith said of Shawnee. “They’re the top dog out there. We know that everyone that we’ve lost to we should have beat or we were there. For me, trying to change the culture, nobody in the last five, 10 years has really thought much of North basketball. I don’t want nobody thinking that it’s a gimme. I want everyone to know you better come to play. I think I got a group of guys that they want those wins.”
After falling behind 3-0 just seconds into the game, the Panthers rebounded to take a 6-3 lead and led 10-6 before the Arrows went on a 6-0 run for a 12-10 lead.
North closed the quarter on a 7-0 run for a 17-12 lead and never trailed again.
The Panthers opened the second quarter with a 10-2 run behind the play of junior Brian Stinson and senior Dillon McCullough. The duo scored 14 of the Panthers 16 points in the quarter as North pushed its lead to 33-24 at the break.
Shawnee closed the gap to 41-38 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.
That’s when momentum changed. Shawnee’s bench was called for a technical foul and it seemed to halt the Arrows’ momentum.
North outscored the Arrows 13-7 over the next seven minutes to extend its lead to nine at 54-45. Shawnee closed to within 55-49 with 1:47 left, but go no closer.
McCullough scored a game-high 29 points to earn MVP honors. Stinson added 15.
“People don’t realize the more that you yell at him that the more that kid loves it,” Smith said of opposing fans singling out McCullough. “He loves being antagonized a little bit. He fed off of it and the guys fed off of it.”
Shawnee coach Dale Spitler Jr. was quick to note his team didn’t play well enough to win and knew North would be prepared.
“Coming into the game we knew North had been playing well and we had been playing well. We knew it would be a battle. Obviously, we’re really familiar with a lot of the guys up from the time we were coaching up there,” Spitler Jr. said. “We know they’ve got some good players including McCullough and Stinson. They now how to play and they were going to be fired up for it with us being 7-0.”
Spitler Jr. said he didn’t expect to go undefeated and hopes his team will take something away from its first loss of the season.
“We’ve done a lot of winning. We’re not going to win them all, but we’re really happy with the way we’ve started out this year,” he said. “We hope to learn from this loss and move on.”
Despite only attempting nine free throws to North’s 27 and having three techincals called on his team, Spitler Jr. opted to give North the credit for the win.
“I don’t want to blame the refs on the game,” he said. “I give them credit they played hard. They hit some shots and they were able to pull it out. I thought we put up a good fight. Our shots weren’t falling and we kept on clawing. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to hit enough shots and they made some key shots and free throws and did enough to pull out the win. Give them credit. They played well.”
Levi Lewis led the Arrows with 10 points. Chase Thompson, Tyler Worley and Joey Bates all had nine.
In the opening round, Shawnee beat Twin Valley South 56-54 and North beat Springfield Northwestern 72-64.
The all-tournament team included: Travis Lovely (TVS), Thompson (PS), Bates (PS), Preston Lairson (TCN), Stinson (TCN) and McCullough (TCN), the tournament MVP.
North (6-3) is scheduled to return to action on Friday, Jan. 5, when they are to host Covington.
Shawnee (7-1) is set to host Waynesville, also on Friday.