The Jefferson City High School boys basketball team looked poised to take care of business Monday in the first round of the Joe Machens Great 8 Classic. The Jays led by as many as 10 in the first half and had an eight-point cushion with six minutes to kill against Kettering Fairmont (Ohio).
But as Fleming Fieldhouse swelled to capacity as a reminder of what the reward for winning likely would be, the Firebirds whipped up a 10-0 run during a span of 1:55 to take the game's final lead, winning 60-56.
"A winnable game, another first-round winnable game that got away from us," Jays coach Blair Thompson said.
The Firebirds scored 21 of the game's last 30 points to take their first lead since 2:06 in the first quarter. The Jays back got within 3 on a Kamari Balton 3-pointer with 1:17 to go following the Firebirds' 15-1 run, and two points from a cherry-picking Seth Stegeman cut it again to one possession, but free throws down the stretch sealed the deal.
"We're shooting below 50 percent on the year from the free-throw line," Thompson said, "and you're living on borrowed time when you're doing that and tonight it came back and got us. We didn't hit very many. I don't know the exact numbers, but it wasn't good."
The Jays made 5-of-11 free throws. The Firebirds hit 16-of-23, and Jimmy Bergman hit seven of eight - all in the fourth quarter to salt the win.
Jefferson City got a boost early from Kamari Balton, who hit his first five shots to score 12 first-quarter points. Balton finished with a game-high 23 points.
"We're glad he was hitting shots," Thompson said. "That was important. That got us off and going, but for us to be consistently good going down the stretch here and to beat good teams we need to get better in the half court as a team, getting guys involved and just being more efficient.
"Right now we're pretty predictable, so that's something we've got to work on and just being physical. We usually pride ourselves on playing harder than opponents, being first to loose balls. I thought we were kind of hit and miss in those areas tonight, and we left the door open."
Along with free throws, Thompson cited physicality as a big reason for the Jays being unable to shut the door.
"I think their physical presence and their ability to make things difficult for us wore us down to the point where we got pretty easy to guard and had trouble staying in front defensively," he said.
The loss cost the Jays a second-round matchup with Father Tolton and its nationally-recruited junior Michael Porter Jr. The Trailblazers, who played to a packed crowd in the subsequent game, defeated Joplin 78-39.
"I never heard anybody talk about (getting to play Tolton), but I'm sure as young kids I'm sure they were quite aware of what was on the other side of that bracket," Thompson said. "I don't think that had any effect on what happened tonight, but it's a shame we missed out probably on a good crowd and a good basketball game."
The loss was also frustrating for the Jays because they have home-court advantage in the tournament, which is regularly held at Fleming.
"We haven't won a first-round game in a long time," Thompson said. "You always want to win first round to go to the correct side (of the bracket), and we had an opportunity to do it, more than likely a chance to play Tolton and see what we had and that kind of thing at home.
"But we're likely going to end up playing Joplin, which just became a huge game for us in this tournament, trying to see if we can salvage what we have here and get two wins."
Tipoff for Jefferson City and Joplin is at 5:30 p.m. today.