The Springstead Eagles (16-9) overwhelmed the Mitchell Mustangs (12-14) in the quarterfinal round of the 6A District 4 tournament by a score of 83-65 on Tuesday night. The two squads had already met twice this season, with each team taking a game from the other. Tuesday’s postseason matchup would serve as the tiebreaker. The Red, White, and Blue would defend Greg O’Connell court valiantly as they led wire-to-wire and held as much as a 25-point advantage in the final frame. Springstead Head Coach Matt McGarry gave the Mustangs kudos after the game.
“This is a team who can eliminate leads quickly because they are a good shooting team, and they like to play at a fast pace,” Coach McGarry said. “All night, they were sending two and three to the basketball. I do not necessarily think they do that to get steals and easy baskets. I think they want more possessions out of what they are doing. The fact that we were able to slow it down and limit their possessions really played into our favor tonight.”
Ultimately, it was the Eagles that were the star of the show on Tuesday as they started hot and never looked back. Senior G Austin Nicholson rebounded an early miss by Junior G Ryan Sayre to open the scoring, but Sayre more than made up for it with a pair of treys in the first 4:06 of game time. The visitors would keep just within striking distance with Mustangs Senior G Connor Peterson scoring 8 of their 13 points in the first, but the Eagles continued to build their lead heading into the intermission. Everyone played their part throughout the evening for the home team when need be, but the standout of the quarterfinal was Senior G Niko Cordello.
The senior knocked down a three early in the first quarter before unleashing a barrage of shots from downtown in the second period. Hanging onto a tenuous 20-13 lead early in the quarter, Cordello drained the second of his seven three-pointers of the evening. Treys two and three were made from the same corner roughly 30 seconds apart before he knocked down another from the top of the key two minutes later. The guard made one more from the corner and then another off an inbounds pass. He would log his final three again near the top of the key to extend his team’s lead to 21 late in the third quarter.
“Oh my gosh. Niko, it seemed like everything he threw up there was a make, which really helped us, especially in those times where we were taking the first shot out of that double team,” Coach McGarry said. “So, if we miss those shots, it is a whole different outcome. But he made them, and he made them bountifully. It was an outstanding night for him and hopefully one that he will not forget, but we need him to have some more nights like that if we are going to continue to move forward.”
Throughout the matchup, Austin Nicholson would find fast break opportunities where he would be able to get skinny and log quick layups to cushion the team’s lead in the second half. Junior F Zion McKenzie was a constant force inside with timely rebounds and layups of his own to help the Eagles keep their strong double-digit lead. Sayre, like much of the season, was scrappy and good for much-needed scores at critical moments.
At other times throughout the year, if the team could not get Nicholson the right shots, they would often cool down considerably. That spelled doom for some of their more hotly contested matchups, but that was not the case on Tuesday. It was a total team effort that saw Cordello in the starring role and the Eagles’ head coach feels he has seen tremendous growth from his players from game 1 to game 25.
“Absolutely. I mean, this group started the season [6-5]. We are sitting at 16-9 now. So, to say I am proud is an understatement. These guys have really bought in to not just what we do but to each other, and it is starting to show now. We just got to continue to play our best basketball when it means the most now.”
Looking ahead to the district semifinals, Springstead will need that growth when they play Wiregrass Ranch (22-3) on Thursday. It is going to take elite execution and attention to the game plan just like Tuesday to come out with a victory over the top-seeded Bulls on the road. “If these guys buckle down, I think they have proven they can make it happen,” said Coach McGarry.