STEPHENVILLE — Down double digits in the Class 2A Region II semifinals at Tarleton State’s Wisdom Gym on Friday, the Ponder Lions looked as if their season was going to end on a sour note.
However, the Ponder defense showed second-half grit and determination en route to a thrilling 40-38 victory over Red Oak Life to set up the Lions’ third showdown of the season with district rival Brock.
“Our kids have fought like this all year,” Ponder coach Jude Stanley said. “We’ve been in many ballgames just like this where at the end we were behind and we had to claw back into it. Our kids refused to lose. We had three or four guys with four fouls, so we had to sub offense and defense.”
Neal Johnson’s back-to-back buckets stretched the Mustangs’ lead to 30-18 early in the second half, but the Lions finished the third quarter on an 8-2 run, with four points coming from their consistent inside force of Clay Thompson.
Riding that momentum, the Lions held the Mustangs to just six fourth-quarter points.
It wasn’t easy for the Lions, though, as neither team led by more than three in the fourth.
“We preach to our team to stay the course,” Stanley said. “You saw that tonight. We didn’t get rattled. … They believe in themselves, they believe in the coaches and they believe in the fans.”
The Lions drew even with the Mustangs on a set play to Morgan, who converted a three-point play to tie it at 32.
The Lions took their first lead of the second half on a series of wacky plays. Josh Peterson missed four consecutive free throws before claiming Ponder’s second offensive rebound of the series and sinking a jumper from the right elbow to make it 34-33.
Stanley, who was distracted with organizing his team’s transition defense, missed the crucial putback in all the commotion.
“I’m trying to get my team ready to go play defense again, and one of my assistants said, ‘Coach, it went in!’” Stanley said. “I thought he just made the free throw, and then I saw the two points up on the board. I can’t wait to see that on film. That’s a heck of a play.”
After missing the previous time down the floor, Micah Broadstreet hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to give the Lions a 37-35 lead. Morgan then delivered a clutch layup to put his team up 39-36 — a product of crisp Ponder passing.
Morgan led all players with 14 points, with Kade Copp providing eight points and the steady ball-handling needed to deal with Red Oak Life’s trap game.
“Cade down the stretch was huge because he was able to get the ball where we needed to get some big buckets,” Stanley said. “Clay kept battling inside. He got a couple of cheap fouls on him. That’s the way the game is played, but he didn’t quit. He stayed the course just like the rest of them.”
Down by three, the Mustangs then went to Johnson, who had 10 points on the night, for two 3-point attempts. Both were off the mark. Johnson’s baseline drive for an uncontested bucket made it 39-38.
After Ponder’s Grant Boxell hit one of two from the free throw line to make it 40-38, the Mustangs (33-7) had 10 seconds to tie the game. Johnson drove right and put up a desperate shot that missed and fell to Jeremy Reese, the Mustangs’ leading scorer with 12 points, who was too strong on his putback attempt.
“In the second half, we had to claw back defensively,” Stanley said. “We told the kids we need multiple stops in a row, and that’s what started happening. Then it snowballs into good offense on the other end.”
The first quarter didn’t see either team take more than a two-point lead. Copp scored five points in the period high while Jeremy Reese and Ian Thompson drove the Mustang charge with four points apiece.
Thompson’s 3-pointer answered Copp’s conventional three-point play to give the Mustangs a 10-9 lead with under a minute remaining in the quarter. Coleman James’ spin move for a layup gave the Lions the lead at 11-10, but Reese’s one-handed hanging floater at the top of the key to end the quarter put Red Oak Life up 12-11.
The Mustangs shot 4-of-10 from the floor while the Lions were 5-of-5 from the free throw line in the first quarter.
Reese came off a screen and drilled an open 3-pointer help his team open the second quarter with a 5-0 run. Another pull-up jumper for Reese made it 21-13. Getting into the penalty two minutes into the quarter, the Mustangs began to play keep-away to bleed the clock.
Brady Anderson’s left baseline drive brought the Lions to within 21-15 with a minute left in the half. After squeezing the Mustangs into a turnover with less than 10 seconds left, Josh Peterson’s breakaway chance clanged off the back of the rim.
After reaching its goal of 30 wins, Ponder (30-9) will face Brock at 2 p.m. today.
Stanley said he isn’t surprised to see a familiar face in the regional final.
“Brock is a great team and great tradition just like us,” Stanley said. “Our programs are very similar. It doesn’t surprise me that Region II is going to get somebody from our district. It shows you how difficult our district was. We had to beat our third district team to even get to this point. It shows you the tradition that Brock and Ponder have had for many years.”
Ponder 40, Red Oak Life 38
Red Oak Life 12 9 11 6 — 38
Ponder 11 4 13 12 — 40
Red Oak Life (33-7) — Jeremy Reese 12, Neal Johnson 10, Ian Thompson 6, Zabdi Cuellar 5, Nicholas Forde 3, Karrey Sanders 2.
Ponder (30-9) — Clay Morgan 14, Kade Copp 8, Micah Broadstreet 6, Brady Anderson 5, Reid Sanders 2, Josh Peterson 2, Coleman James 2, Grant Boxell 1.