KEARNEY — With just five varsity players outside of quarantine, Kearney boys basketball opted to sit out the final two weeks of the season to get healthy for a postseason run.
That layoff showed on the offensive end of the floor during the first quarter for the Bulldogs as they returned to the court against St. Joe Lafayette Tuesday, March 2 in the Missouri Class 5 District 16 semifinals at Kearney High School.
But Kearney’s defense did more than enough to compensate as the team pulled out a 46-41 victory over the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in the district finals a season ago.
The Bulldogs matched Lafayette with a 6-all score through one quarter, but they built a 6-point advantage by halftime. Lafayette made multiple runs to close that gap down the stretch, but Kearney kept them at arms length on the way to a win.
“I was a little nervous and obviously you could tell we were a little rusty to start there,” Kearney head coach Dillon Starzl said. “There was a lid on the baskets for both teams. … But we talk about it all the time, it starts on the defensive end.”
When their defense holds up, senior guard Brennan Watkins generally gets going at some point on offense. Watkins took a little while to get going, but the leading scorer in the Suburban Blue conference earned 9 of his game-high 18 points during the fourth quarter to close out the game.
Watkins said the four seniors and junior forward Ashton Holloway used last year’s loss to Lafayette as motivation for this game.
“That's all we've been talking about all week: revenge,” Watkins said. “They kicked us out last year and we didn't want that to happen again.”
Those upperclassmen all stepped up at different points in the game to help the Bulldogs flip the result.
Holloway scored 12 points and made a huge block late in the game that helped prevent Lafayette from tying it up under five minutes left to play.
The focus on Watkins and Holloway also opened up room for senior guard Tyler Carr and senior forward Drew Gentry. Carr made three 3-pointers to get the Bulldogs going in the second quarter. Gentry converted 1 of 2 free throws to get his first point late in the game, but he sank a clutch jumper a few possessions later to end a Lafayette scoring run.
More importantly, Gentry stepped up to slow down Lafayette guard Camden Bennett after the sophomore got Carr in foul trouble. Gentry said the entire defense’s gritty play is what helped give him the energy he needed to come through in the final frame.
“It really goes back to coaching,” Gentry said. “Coach (Starzl) really puts the pressure down on our defense and the defense really starts it off.”
Kearney will face No. 1 seed Platte County 6 p.m. Thursday, March 4 at Platte County High School in the district finals. The Bulldogs have played the Pirates three times this year and finished 1-2 in those games.