North Callaway boys basketball loses at Higbee, led by All-American nominee Rockett

Higbee's Dereck Rockett, mid-Missouri's only boys 2024 McDonald's All-American nominee, shoots a free throw against North Callaway Saturday at Higbee High School in Higbee. The Thunderbirds held Rockett to two points in the first half, but he rebounded with 17 in the second half. (Robby Campbell/Fulton Sun)
Higbee's Dereck Rockett, mid-Missouri's only boys 2024 McDonald's All-American nominee, shoots a free throw against North Callaway Saturday at Higbee High School in Higbee. The Thunderbirds held Rockett to two points in the first half, but he rebounded with 17 in the second half. (Robby Campbell/Fulton Sun)

HIGBEE -- The North Callaway Thunderbirds traveled to the hometown of United States World War II General Omar Bradley to face mid-Missouri's only 2024 boys McDonald's All-American nominee, the Higbee Tigers' Dereck Rockett, Saturday at Higbee High School.

Outscoring the Thunderbirds 43-22 in the second half, Higbee (17-1), ranked sixth in Class 1 by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association, beat North Callaway 76-48.

"The score was 30-26 at one point," Miller said. "We're right there with them, and then the third quarter, they kind of cranked it up to a different level. We did not match that level of intensity in the second half; it got away from us in the third quarter. We were up for the challenge. We were excited about the challenge, playing a good team on the road. ...I felt like we were competing early on, and we were right there with them.

"A highly-ranked team like that, it doesn't matter the classification. They're a good team, and I thought we competed really, really well in the first half. I thought we did not compete very well in the second half."

North Callaway (6-16) defended well and held Rockett to two points in the first half and trailed 33-26 at halftime, but Higbee's No. 11 showed why he's considered an All-American in the second half, posting 17 points, including two 3s.

"He's a good player, I thought we did a phenomenal job on him in the first half, held him to two points," North Callaway boys basketball coach Matt Miller said. "He had a ton of assists. He facilitated a lot, and then, in the second half, he kind of took over in the scoring column. He's a good player, shifty with the basketball, but I think what really makes him is he's a good passer besides the dynamic scoring."

Highlighting how impressive the Thunderbirds did against Rockett, they held him to 11 points less than his per-game average a season ago, when he made MBCA Class 1 all-state as a junior.

Meanwhile, all-district Thunderbirds Sam Pezold and Isiah Craighead, who combined to score 16 points -- Craighead with 10 points and Pezold with six points -- in the first half before totaling just eight in the second half.

For the game, Pezold tallied a team-high 14 points (2-2 free throws), nine rebounds, and five assists and was second on the team with two steals. A day after scoring a season-high 27 points, Craighead registered 12 points, eight rebounds and a block.

Those all-district Thunderbirds and All-American nominee Tiger may have garnered the attention heading into the matchup. Still, Higbee's Jaxon Hudson, the only all-district Tiger outside of Rockett, matched Pezold's and Craighead's scoring output combined, registering a game-high 26 points while going 5-9 at the free-throw line.

"Rockett kid, he's a dang good player, one of the best in the area, best in Class 1, and best in the state," Miller said. "But, there's good players around him; complimentary team. What they do, they do really, really well.

Hudson started strong, going on a personal 5-0 run, 1-2 at the line, and two 2s to put Higbee in front 5-0. Craighead responded with a layup off a Tigers turnover and an end-to-end basket off his steal to make it a one-point game.

Bringing it back to a five-point Higbee lead, Rockett landed a mid-range jumper for his only bucket of the first half. Following that, Craighead and Pezold's makes inside the arc cut it to a three-point game twice before Paul Russell knocked down the first of his co-game-high four 3s, all 12 of his points, to put it at 13-11 for North Callaway.

"He shot the ball well tonight; that was good for him because he'd been in a little bit of a shooting slump earlier in the week," Miller said. "But he, if I tell him to shoot, he's one of the best spot-up shooters on our team. And, I just say, 'Keep firing, man.' He's got a lot of confidence in himself."

The Tigers never trailed in the contest, and the Thunderbirds had an excellent chance to go ahead in the first quarter, but Higbee went on a 9-0 run to hold a 22-11 advantage. During the run, Will Spilman drained a 3 to give Higbee its first double-digit lead before Hudson converted 1 of 2 free throws to conclude his 11-point first quarter and the Tigers' scoring surge.

Pezold halted the run with a floater inside, making it 22-13 Higbee through one quarter. To open the second-quarter offense, Pezold hit a right-wing jumper off one of Dalton Brewer's team-high three steals for North Callaway.

Like the first quarter, the Tigers went ahead by double figures, with Hudson scoring in back-to-back possessions, his putback handing Higbee a 26-15 cushion. Staying resilient, Russell got a top-of-the-key 3 to fall as the Thunderbirds trailed 28-24.

North Callaway was down by as few as four points one more time before halftime when Brewer converted a layup from a throw-in with :37.6 left in the second quarter. Higbee seemed to have an answer whenever the Thunderbirds threatened to overtake its lead; this time, Danny Janssen launched a 3 on the Tigers' final drive of the first half, giving them a seven-point advantage (33-26) at the break.

Janssen didn't need a break, picking up where he left off by hitting a left-corner 3 to increase Higbee's lead to 36-26 on the first drive of the second half.

Keeping their foot on the pedal, the Tigers outscored the Thunderbirds 30-14 in the third quarter. Higbee's Spilman (eight points, including two 3s), Rockett (eight, including a 3) and Hudson (seven) recorded 23 of its points in the third quarter.

Erik Blair became the fifth and final North Callaway player to score when he hit a layup on its final possession of the third quarter to make it 63-40 Higbee. The Tigers also had five players score, but their five scorers averaged 15.2 points compared to the Thunderbirds' 9.6.

Remaining dominant, Higbee went on an 8-0 run early in the fourth quarter, and Rockett's final make from the field, a floater in traffic, put the running clock into effect with the Tigers up 71-40. From that point on, it flipped between a running clock and standard game time, though Spilman's left corner 3 furthered Higbee's lead to its largest at 34 (76-42) with a few minutes left.

Brewer didn't give up, posting two consecutive coast-to-coast layups off his steals on the Thunderbirds' final two possessions. North Callaway had bits and pieces of quality play, but Higbee displayed why it's state-ranked with a player receiving national recognition.

North Callaway forced seven turnovers while it turned it over six times, and the Thunderbirds rebounded well, pulling down 30 boards to Higbee's 35. However, the real difference in the ballgame was the Tigers' lethal offense.

"With this team, it's been all year, if we play good defense, we give ourselves a chance," Miller said. "Some nights and some quarters and some halves where we don't want to play defense, and then we don't want to rebound, and then the game gets away from you there. That second half, they whipped our butts on the boards. First half, I think we outrebounded them as a team. Second half, that's not the case. That's the game right there in a lot of cases, right? If you don't defend and you don't rebound, it gets away from you real fast."

Jumping back into Eastern Missouri Conference action, North Callaway (3-4 EMO) hosts Wright City (9-7, 4-3 EMO) for Senior Night at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at North Callaway High School in Kingdom City. Adding more significance, it's the final home game for Pezold and Craighead, both starters for the Thunderbirds 2022-23 team that won its first district title since 1998-99.

"I think they're a lot like us in some spots," Miller said. "They're having an up-and-down season. Last couple of games lately, they've been doing some good stuff. They're an athletic team; they're quick. We're gonna have our hands full, Senior Night, though. We got four seniors, looking forward to playing our last game at the Thunderdome."