The big man is back for the Grain Valley High School boys basketball team.
Adding Cole Keller, a 6-foot-5 forward who just returned from a knee injury he suffered while playing quarterback for the Eagles, to a team-oriented squad paid huge dividends in the No. 3 Eagles 62-53 victory over No. 6 Pembroke Hill in Class 4 District 14 action Saturday at Oak Grove High School.
Keller, who battled foul problems in the first half, finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds while the Eagles did all the little things you don’t see in a scorebook.
Guard Seth Dankenbring opened the game diving through a trio of Raiders to scoop up a loose ball. Former junior varsity player Jayden Yung scored just two points, but they were free throws that helped nail down the come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter. Josh Kilpatrick scored a quiet 14 points, including eight in the final quarter. and Caden Matlon rained down 3-pointers on the Warriors to the tune of 28 points.
"What does the return of Cole mean to our team? Everything," Grain Valley coach Andy Herbert said after his third-seeded Eagles improved to 16-10 and advanced to Tuesday’s district semifinal against No. 2 Center (15-9). "The great thing about Cole coming back is that he makes us a better team. We still have that great team chemistry, everyone knows their roles and we get a player who can score in the paint and get big rebounds."
The game was a nail-biter for three quarters as the score was tied 10-all after one quarter and the Raiders led 25-22 at halftime.
Pembroke Hill hit nine consecutive shots in the third quarter – including all four from 3-point range – and led 45-39 going into the fourth period.
That’s when the Eagles went to work.
With Keller playing with three fouls, the Eagles dominated at both ends of the court. Matlon hit his fourth 3-pointer and was part of a streak in which Grain Valley hit eight free throws in a row. Kilpatrick hit two treys and hit both free throws and Keller added four points and four boards.
And they held the Raiders to just eight points, after they had scored 20 in the third quarter.
"It feels so great to be back," said Keller, who refused to take any credit for the win. "We have Seth diving for loose balls, Jayden hits those big free throws, Caden and Josh are hitting long-range threes and everyone is playing so well. We don’t feel like a team. We’re a band of brothers and we want this season to go on as long as possible."
Matlon agreed, adding, "The first half, we just weren’t playing Grain Valley basketball. We picked things up in the second half and played about as well as we can play – offensively and defensively – in the fourth quarter.
"And it’s great to have Cole back. He makes us so much better. We can’t wait for our next game."
The Eagles meet Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Oak Grove High School. The winner meets Raytown South or Odessa in the championship at 7:30 p.m. Friday.