Oak Grove’s Jaxon Althaus opened Friday night’s standing-room-only courtwarming contest against rival Grain Valley with a long-range 3-pointer.
That was a bit of foreshadowing for a night the senior guard, his teammates, coach and hundreds of vocal fans will never forget as his memorable 30-point performance led the Panthers to a dramatic 56-44 Missouri River Valley West victory over an Eagle team that was riding a seven-game winning streak against coach Ty Hames’ squad.
“Jaxon comes out and hits that 3-pointer to start the game and we’re just standing around like we don’t even know who’s shooting,” Eagles coach Andy Herbert said after the loss. “He’s a great kid and a great player. He got them going on that early run and that pretty much decided the rest of the game.”
Althaus scored eight points as the Panthers got off to a 12-1 start and finished the first quarter with a 17-10 lead.
“That was pretty much the difference most of the night,” Herbert said after his Eagles fell to 16-3 overall and 3-1 in the MRVC West. “They’re a good team, and it was a great atmosphere tonight. I just wish we would have responded better early in the game.”
Twice the Eagles cut the deficit to four points, but each time the Panthers had a response, and it was usually Althaus doing the responding.
Leading 36-29 at the close of the third quarter, he was fouled on a 3-point attempt and hit all three free throws with no time showing on the clock. He had to ask the cheerleaders to leave the court as his teammates returned to the bench and he stood alone at the line.
But his big moment came at 3:48 of the fourth quarter. Oak Grove led 45-38 when Althaus drove to the basket and slammed home his first prep dunk. He was fouled, and as he sprawled to the court, his teammates began celebrating with the delirious Oak Grove student cheering section.
“I was ecstatic when that happened,” said junior center Trey Bryant, who dominated the paint against a larger Grain Valley team, earning the praise of his coach. “He’s had a dunk in practice, but never in a game. That was the best moment for me. We (all our teammates) just went over and started celebrating with our fans. It was so cool.”
Kenton Wilhoit, who turned in a gritty defensive performance despite playing much of the second half with four fouls, agreed with Bryant.
“We love Jaxon and when he got that dunk, we had to celebrate!” Wilhoit said. “Jaxon came to play tonight – we all came to play.”
The dunk and made free throw gave the Panthers a 48-38 lead.
“When Jaxon got the dunk, we said, ‘That’s it, we’re not letting them back in the game,’” said Dylon Pfeifer, who finished with 14 points and hit all six of his free throws in the fourth quarter. “We knew we’d lost to them seven games in a row, and we weren’t going to lose to them tonight. I didn’t think we could get any more fired up than we were, then Jaxon hit that dunk.”
The Panthers (13-5, 3-1), who have tied the Eagles for the conference lead, added to their lead as Althaus and Pfeifer combined to go 11 of 11 from the line in the fourth quarter.
“This is a great win, and everyone is going to be talking about Jaxon’s dunk and the crowd and all the excitement,” Hames said after the big win. “But I just told our guys we can’t let this game define our season or be the biggest moment of our season.
“You know why we won this game? We got back to playing defense – DEFENSE! When they’d make a run, we played defense and stopped it. And everyone played defense. The dunk was nice, but how many steals did Jaxon have tonight (five)? Defense, I’m talking about defense.
“How about the way Trey played in the paint and the minutes we got off the bench from our guys. If we play the rest of the season like we played tonight, we’re going to have a lot more big wins. We can enjoy this one tonight, but we’re getting back after it tomorrow.”
And what did the man of the hour have to say for his big night.
“All the credit goes to the guys on the team,” Althaus said, as he was greeted by family members and fans after the game. “I’m so happy right now. I was a freshman the last time we beat Grain Valley and I wasn’t even on varsity.
“This was a team win. Trey was great inside, Dylon hit the big free throws, Brenden (Marsh) and T.J. (Jackson) came in and got some big steals and this was by far our best defensive game of the season.
“It’s like Coach just said in the locker room, we can all enjoy this one tonight. Now, we’re going to get back to work at practice so we can win a lot more games this season.”
Andru Garrett led the Eagles with 14 points and Caden Matlon added 10.