KEARNEY — Kearney boys basketball was prepared for Smithville to blitz countless defenders into the path of senior guard Brennan Watkins during the Highway 92 rivalry game on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Kearney High School.
The Bulldogs coaching staff tipped off Ashton Holloway before that game that they would likely need him to step up in this one. Holloway was ready and willing, scoring 24 points and pulling down nine rebounds to lead the Bulldogs to a 67-47 victory.
Kearney has won the previous six matchups with Smithville in boys basketball, but Holloway still felt like this game was a must win to even the score from another sport.
“The rivalry goes back to football,” Holloway said. “We got dominated in the district championship, lost 43-0. I think that we really take that to heart.”
Smithville pulled out to a 6-0 lead, but Holloway scored 6 straight points to tie the game. He was responsible for all of Kearney’s points in a 13-13 first quarter after he found Tyler Carr in the corner for a 3-pointer, giving himself an assist to go along with his 10 points.
Carr started to get rolling as well, scoring the first 4 points of the second quarter to start an 8-0 run that led to a 37-24 halftime advantage. Kearney kept the Warriors at arm’s length throughout the second half as they expanded the lead by 4 during the third quarter.
“(Holloway’s) confidence keeps going up and we just got to keep having him be assertive,” Kearney head coach Dillon Starzl said. “Especially when teams are just running two to three guys at Brennan. Just adding that post presence is really good for our team.”
Watkins still found a way to score 16 points despite missing both of his 3-point attempts. He opted for more drives to the basket as he shot 5 of 8 on 2-point attempts and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line.
On defense, Carr locked up with Smithville’s Ryker Edwards to limit him to 5 points on 2-of-8 shooting and 1 of 5 from 3-point range.
“Tyler usually guards the best player on the other team,” Starzl said. “He takes that challenge upon himself every single night. He loves guarding a team’s best player, so I thought he did fantastic.”
Edwards said he’s been disappointed in his own performance in recent games. He averaged 14 points per game in the team’s previous two losses against Ruskin and Grandview, but he shot 41% from the field and just 20% from 3.
“We just need to play together … play more like we were at the beginning of the year,” Edwards said.
Smithville head coach Eric Bennaka said the struggles of his sophomore guard are mostly because he’s a known commodity now.
“People are guarding him, putting their best defenders on him whereas earlier in the season he was still a bit of an unknown,” Bennaka said. “He made a name for himself with all of those points he was racking up.”
Bennaka added that some of his shooting struggles are missing some open shots that he normally makes and the team has had a tough time getting other players going on offense. The Warriors finished 3 of 20 from deep against Kearney.
Smithville’s struggles led to passions boiling between teammates on the sideline. Bennaka said those emotions are exactly what he wants to see from his players.
“It’s because they care and they want to be the group that officially turns this thing around,” he said.
Kearney had a similar moment a few weeks ago when the team let their early-game struggles against Ruskin compound into a 68-54 loss, falling to 1-1 in conference play.
“We really got down on ourselves,” Holloway said. “We were really negative. If we remain positive, we can dominate every team in our conference, I truly believe that.”
Starzl said the team has refocused and regrouped since that loss.
“We just need to keep pushing,” Starzl said. “Instead of being a good team, we need to push to become a great team because great teams win championships.”
Both Kearney and Smithville followed up with huge wins over Platte County. The Pirates started the week with one loss on the season and ranked No. 9 in Missouri Class 5 by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association.
Kearney (10-5, 3-2 Suburban Blue) won 61-55 the next night at home but lost a 57-55 against Winnetonka on Friday, Jan. 22 in former Bulldogs head coach Kirk Stegeman's first time returning to face his old team. Smithville (8-7, 2-4 SB) ended a three-game conference losing streak by beating the Pirates 65-56 on Friday, Jan. 22 at Smithville High School.