North Callaway boys basketball shows resiliency, losing to Class 1 No. 8 Sacred Heart

North Callaway's Paul Russell guards Sacred Heart's Connor Rice in the Hall of Fame Classic Saturday at Tolton High School in Columbia. (Robby Campbell/Fulton Sun)
North Callaway's Paul Russell guards Sacred Heart's Connor Rice in the Hall of Fame Classic Saturday at Tolton High School in Columbia. (Robby Campbell/Fulton Sun)

COLUMBIA -- Another Saturday, another North Callaway Thunderbirds loss against a state-ranked Class 1 team, though they showed resiliency to cut their deficit to nine points in the fourth quarter.

"We weren't ready from the get-go," North Callaway boys basketball coach Matt Miller said. "That starts with me as coach; we've got to do a better job of getting five guys ready to play from the opening tip.

"We were down 16-3 to start the game, and they outscored us in the last couple of minutes of the second quarter; they outscored us 12-1. You take those two runs away, it's a close game going into halftime. But still, with all of that and not playing really good in those two stretches, I thought we came out third quarter and played really good basketball, kind of grinded them out a little bit. Chipped away and got back into the game."

In a matchup between teams with unique mascots, the Sacred Heart Gremlins, ranked eighth in Class 1 by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association, beat the Thunderbirds 71-45 in the Hall of Fame Classic at Tolton High School.

Even though most of North Callaway's players were feeling under the weather, they still gave it their all as all-district Thunderbird Sam Pezold led the way with a team-high 15 points (5-7 at the free-throw line and two 3s), four assists, a co-team-high four rebounds and added a steal as well.

"I thought Sam Pezold had a good game throughout the game," Miller said. "He was one guy that's been sick the last couple of days. Sacred Heart, they're a dang good defensive team, and they guard you and get up and put pressure on you. I thought he did a good job of keeping his composure throughout the court of the game. He didn't really force too much stuff that wasn't there."

Pezold kept the Thunderbirds in the game in the first half, posting 10 of their 23 points.

To open the scoring, Connor Rice drained a 3, the first three of his 19 points (four 3s and 1-6 at the charity stripe), and Max Van Leer scored a transition layup, two of his game-high 23 points (two 3s and 5-10 at the free-throw line) to put Sacred Heart up 5-0.

Pezold answered for North Callaway with a top-of-the-arc 3 to cut North Callaway's deficit to two, the closest it got to the Gremlins.

Connor Rice and Van Leer continued to make their shots for Sacred Heart. The duo went on an 11-0 run -- Connor Rice scored eight points (two 3s) and Van Leer three points (one 3) -- to put the Gremlins ahead 16-3 and force a Thunderbirds timeout with 5:53 left in the first quarter.

North Callaway's timeout paid off, with the Thunderbirds reducing their deficit to nine points (16-7) when Levi Dake got a putback to fall after Isiah Craighead nearly finished putting down a transition slam dunk off his steal. Craighead had North Callaway's best defensive performance, finishing with a co-team-high four rebounds and two steals; Drake also had two steals.

It may not have been Craighead's day offensively, but he made a putback, two of his five points, to make it 16-9 Sacred Heart. Drake followed that up with a right-wing jumper after a Pezold steal to cut it to a five-point game.

The Rice brothers recorded six points unanswered with a three-point play from Carter, who scored 16 points, making 5-of-9 free throws and made a 3, and a 3 from Connor, sending Sacred Heart back in front by double digits at 22-11 and the Gremlins led 23-13 at the end of the first quarter.

Pezold capitalized on Sacred Heart fouling him beyond the arc, going 3-3 at the charity stripe to decrease the Thunderbirds' deficit to seven points on their first drive of the second quarter.

North Callaway got as close as six points (28-22) to the Gremlins in the second quarter when Paul Russell landed back-to-back 3s, two of his team-high three triples that accounted for his nine points.

"Paul Russell, he's been shooting the ball really well for us, and he did a good job of keeping us in the game with hitting some shots," Miller said.

The Thunderbirds tallied 11 turnovers, nine in the second quarter, and most of those came when Sacred Heart scored 12 points with no reply after Russell's 3s. That run gave the Gremlins a 40-22 advantage.

Caleb Sheets ended North Callaway's offensive rut, converting 1-of-2 free throws to finish the first-half scoring with the Thunderbirds trailing 40-23 at the break.

Whatever the Thunderbirds did to address their issues at halftime worked, outscoring Sacred Heart 10-5 in the third quarter to put it at 45-33 Gremlins heading into the fourth.

North Callaway's 10 points in the third quarter came from a Craighead mid-range jumper, Sheets 3-pointer and Pezold draining a 3 and hitting two free throws.

The Thunderbirds did even better in the fourth quarter, tallying 12 points.

That second-half offensive effort allowed North Callaway to finally make it a single-digit contest (45-36) when Russell knocked down a 3 provided by Craighead on the Thunderbirds' initial drive of the fourth quarter.

"I said, 'If we can cut it to single digits, we can be in this thing,' and at one point we cut it to nine," Miller said. "Credit to Sacred Heart, they're a good basketball team. The next thing you know, you look up, and we're down 20 again. So, I was proud of the boys' effort. I thought it was a closer game than the final score indicated. I thought if you take a couple of two- or three-minute runs right there, we were right there with them. We cut it to single digits at one point in the fourth quarter, and just not enough firepower on our end. Too many mental mistakes for this time of year that we got to be better at."

Sacred Heart (18-5) eventually tacked on basket after basket to go too far within reach, though a few Thunderbirds joined the scoresheet.

Austin Brown, who registered a co-team-high two steals, landed a top-of-the-arc 3, and Erik Blair posted a three-point play that started with a layup to reduce North Callaway's deficit below 20 points for the final time at 62-43.

Even though he had just three points and two rebounds, Blair's presence in the post helped the Thunderbirds in their solid second half.

"Erik Blair did a really good job; stuff that just doesn't show up on the box score," Miller said. "Stats maybe weren't that great, but I thought he did a great job of his inside presence, rebounding. I really thought he did a really nice job in the second half."

Regardless of coming up against a state-ranked opponent, Miller said North Callaway shouldn't use it as a reason for why it lost.

"We've had some guys in and our this week of practice with some sickness," Miller said. "Kind of going through our school, so therefore our team, but we don't need to address that or talk about that on our team. Those are excuses. Those are kind of built-in excuses if you will. That's not really what we're about. If you're healthy enough to suit up and play, you're healthy enough to give everything you've got and go play hard. So, that's kind of how we address it. They could go, so give it everything we got."

North Callaway (7-17, 4-4 Eastern Missouri Conference) has an excellent opportunity to get back in the win column when it faces Mark Twain (3-18, 1-7 EMO) in EMO action at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mark Twain High School in Center.

"Anytime you gotta travel on the road in the EMO, it's gonna be a tough night (laughs)," Miller said. "So, we're excited about it. We got two conference games left, and the first one is against Mark Twain, obviously. We're excited. One week of basketball before districts, and I know they've been struggling a little bit. But we haven't been setting the world on fire ourselves. So, we're excited for the challenge, and it's always a tough place to play. We'll give them our best shot."