Blue Springs South boys basketball coach Josh Smith didn’t hide his displeasure of his team’s effort, energy and ball movement in Thursday’s first-round loss in the William Jewell Holiday Classic. One day later, Smith saw the effort he was looking for.
From the beginning of Friday’s Nelson Division consolation semifinal against Fort Osage, it was clear that hustling and ball movement were points of emphasis. The Jaguars played harder, and looked sharper, in a 69-54 win at the Mabee Center in Liberty.
South (4-5), which broke a five-game losing streak, advanced to play St. Joseph Central in the fifth-place game at 1 p.m. Monday.
Right out of the gate, the Jaguars’ off-the-ball movement and passing were quick and precise. It was clear that the game plan was to get everyone involved. Nine of the 11 Jaguars who played scored. The only two who didn’t score combined for just two minutes when South was milking the clock with a double-digit lead late.
“I was pleased with that aspect of the game,” Smith said of his team’s ball movement. “Recently, after we lost to Raytown, we weren’t very hard to guard, which means the ball is not moving and the players aren’t moving. That means the defenders can be stationary and makes their job pretty easy.
“But when you’re moving and the ball is moving, you become harder to guard. We were moving in the right direction in doing that this morning.”
Jaguars senior forward Devin Tomlinson agreed.
“Coach told us to play more as a team than holding the ball the whole game,” Tomlinson said. “We took that to heart and we spread the ball around.”
Tomlinson was a beneficiary of that ball movement as he scored a team-high 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 3-for-5 from behind the arc. He also grabbed a team-best nine rebounds.
He’s emerged as one of the Jaguars better players and he said he’s had to step up after the Jaguars lost a lot of size from last year’s team.
“I’ve noticed I’ve gotten a lot bigger and I have more strength,” said Tomlinson, who mostly came off the bench last season. “I was more of a playmaker and shooter last year and now I am a starter. I know I can’t just focus on one thing. I have to play inside, too.”
While he’s not a guy who usually puts up gaudy stats, South senior guard Johnny George showed his toughness and grit against the Indians, diving after loose balls, grabbing rebounds around bigger players and stipping the ball from Fort Osage ball handlers.
George finished with nine points, four rebounds, three assists and six steals.
“He’s a warrior,” Smith said. “He plays much bigger than his size (5-foot-11). He’s fearless on the glass. Rebounding is an area where we need to improve upon. As a guard, he’s not afraid to get in there and mix it up with anybody.”
Added George: “I’ve had that, but especially this year since we lost a lot of size. We’re not the biggest team, and I know everyone needs to rebound, even the guards, for our team to be successful.”
The Jaguars took a 17-9 lead after the first period and shot a scorching hot 61.5 percent in the second quarter to take a 37-31 lead into halftime. The Indians were able to slice into the lead thanks to 7-2 run to end the period.
Fort Osage cut the lead to 37-36 after a Braden Pottberg three and a Triston Turner layup, but South started to pull away after holding the Indians to 31.3 percent shooting in the third. George made a pair of big layups and Tomlinson scored eight in the quarter to extend the lead to 54-44 going into the final period.
South led by as many as 18 in the fourth after beginning the period with a 6-0 spurt. Khayden Hooks made two free throws to make it 67-49 and Fort Osage was never able to recover from that point despite a monster performance from Turner, who had 20 points on 9 of 14 shooting, 12 rebounds and five assists.
In addition, the Indians (3-4) once again struggled to take care of the ball as they had 29 turnovers.
“South didn’t press very much in their first few games and we saw it (Thursday),” Fort Osage coach Josh Wilson said. “We prepared for it as much as we could this morning and we expected that. I expected them to come back and play hard.
“We did an all right job and cut it to two in the second half. Then we had that stretch of missing easy shots and they ran out and got wide-open layups (midway in the third period). That stretch absolutely killed us.”
Hooks added 14 points and five assists for South. Miles Dunfield had 12 points and Pottberg finished with 11 for the Indians.