KEARNEY — Kearney boys hoops preached the need for lockdown defense as they faced No. 1 seed Platte County in the district final on Thursday, March 4 at Platte County High School.
The Bulldogs delivered as they held an explosive Pirates offense to their lowest scoring output of the season during a 54-50 victory to secure the Missouri Class 5 District 16 championship.
Kearney first-year head coach Dillon Starzl exploded with excitement when the final buzzer went off in the game.
“It was so much fun, I couldn’t be happier,” said Starzl, who won a state championship as a player for the Bulldogs in 2010. “I love these guys and love this team. My assistant coaches are awesome and I couldn’t do this without them.”
The game started out even as Platte County held a 12-11 lead through the first quarter. The Bulldogs started to pull ahead by getting to the line and making free throws to go up 14-12, but they had a scare as Brennan Watkins crashed to the court on a layup attempt and left the gym with assistance from athletic trainers.
Kearney still added 2 points to the lead in his absence as Watkins returned with five minutes left in the half. He put the final touches on a 10-0 run when he hit a 3-pointer to go up 21-12.
Watkins said it was a groin injury that took him out of the game. He had a similar moment in the district semifinal against Lafayette where Watkins came up hobbled late in the contest before he pushed through to shoot his free throws and help close out that game.
Despite those moments, Watkins refuses to alter his playstyle that has him looking for contact as much as he’s looking for space to shoot.
“I want to be with my team for every single game and I just want to win,” Watkins said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”
Platte County’s Joey Schultz put an end to the Pirates’ drought by scoring on a drive to the basket before he and Watkins traded 3-pointers as the Bulldogs took a 24-17 lead into the locker room.
The Pirates got going a bit on offense to start the third quarter, but Kearney still extended the lead to 32-22 a few minutes out of the break.
Kearney senior forward Drew Gentry made a few big plays on the defensive end of the floor, but he really stood out with a few athletic attempts around the bucket on offense. Gentry went for two putback dunks in the middle quarters. He landed hard on his side after attempting the second one during his own missed free throw.
Watkins said he appreciates how much Gentry sacrifices for the team.
“I love the way he plays on the court for us,” Watkins said. “He’s a little reckless with his body, but he doesn’t care. He’s just doing whatever it takes to win.”
With Gentry down, Schultz saw the 5-on-4 situation and attacked quickly. He pulled off a slick spin move to slice through Kearney defenders, but senior forward Ashton Holloway perfectly timed his jump to swat the ball and grab the rebound.
The moment was big for Holloway as the team’s game plan to limit Platte County’s shooting left more pressure on him to slow down Schultz. Holloway gave Schultz credit as a player who can move quickly while being able to put the ball on the floor to drive to the basket.
“He can shoot too,” Holloway said. “It’s hard to play against that, but I respect his game. I have to give it to him, he got some buckets on me, but the end result is what we wanted.”
Before Kearney could finish the possession gained by Holloway, Platte County’s Jaden Burnett was called for a technical and Watkins went to the line to shoot two free throws. He made both to put the Bulldogs up 37-22 with two minutes left in the third quarter and they extended the lead to 40-26 heading into the fourth.
The Bulldogs kept Platte County at a double-digit distance through most of the final frame, maintaining a 49-38 advantage with just two minutes to go.
Starzl said senior guard Tyler Carr’s play on Jarrett Mueller was key to limiting the Pirates’ 3-point scoring.
“Carr was so good on Mueller,” Starzl said. “That’s what he does, he takes that role and he wants to shut down the other team’s best player.”
He nearly pulled it off for the full four quarters, but Mueller and the Pirates weren’t quite ready to quit. Platte County made a series of baskets in quick succession while Kearney missed a bunch of free throws down the stretch.
Mueller, who had a red-hot fourth quarter to close out the district semifinal game against Smithville, continued to be clutch as he scored 5 points in six seconds to pull his team within 4 points with just 40 seconds to play.
“We knew that was going to come at some point,” Carr said. “They had not been shooting great and they’re a pretty good shooting team. … (Mueller) is a really good player and it’s hard to keep a good player down the entire game.”
He even drew a foul from Carr on 3-pointer, but Mueller ended up missing two of his three attempts.
Burnett gave the Pirates one more chance by forcing a jump ball with a tie up on Watkins, but Kearney secured the rebound on a missed 3-pointer from Alex McClure to put the game away.
“We played a great three quarters tonight, but that fourth quarter we fell apart,” Carr said. “That’s the best part, we still got more room to improve. I think we’re going to keep working toward putting those four-quarter games together and we’re going to keep playing lockdown defense.”
Carr finished with 14 points to be named to the all-district team along with Watkins and Holloway. Watkins also earned district player of the year honors. He finished the district final with 25 points, enough to take him to the 1,500-points mark as he continues to build on the record for most points in Kearney program history.
“He’s been the leader of this team,” Starzl said. “He’s battling through things, but keeps a positive attitude and really just finishes games for us.”
Kearney’s season came to end after a 55-49 loss to Mexico in the state sectionals Tuesday, March 9. Watkins finished with 28 points and five rebounds while Holloway contributed 9 points and five rebounds. Watkins, Carr, Gentry and Dawson Meinert were the four seniors for the Bulldogs.