Grizzlies come up for air after grueling start to season

Sophomore guard Taevon Horton (No. 20) sticks close to his player during a home game earlier this season. Behind are sophomore guards D'Andre Vilmar (No. 5) and Sardaar Calhoun (No. 1). (Missouri State-West Plains Photo)
Sophomore guard Taevon Horton (No. 20) sticks close to his player during a home game earlier this season. Behind are sophomore guards D'Andre Vilmar (No. 5) and Sardaar Calhoun (No. 1). (Missouri State-West Plains Photo)

For the first time this season, the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzly Basketball team will have a whole week between games.

The Grizzlies (4-7) just finished a three-week stretch that saw them play 11 games against some of the toughest teams in the nation.

"It's been a grueling November for our group," Head Coach Chris Popp said. "We survived it, unfortunately not with the record we wanted."

Popp knew the schedule he compiled to start this season contained a lot of risks, but if they could navigate it, the rewards would be great.

"It was the kind of stretch where, if we played great, it reaps top 10 rankings, recognition and possibly sets you up for an at-large bid to Hutch," he said.

"It can also bury a team if you don't play well," he added. "It hasn't buried us. The guys haven't folded. They've improved in the areas that were most needed, and they played their best basketball this past weekend."

Grizzly Classic results

The Grizzlies hosted the Mega Motorsports Grizzly Classic Friday and Saturday at the West Plains Civic Center and came away from the event with a 1-1 record. They fell to Cowley College 122-116 Friday but bounced back and defeated Neosho County Community College 93-80 Saturday.

"Run and gun" was the name of the game against the Cowley Tigers. Both teams raced up and down the court launching basket after basket at a frenetic pace.

"The way Cowley plays, everything is going to come and go in waves," Popp said. "You're going to make runs and they're going to make runs. They're averaging 112 points per game for a reason."

As in past contests, the Grizzlies built a 12-point lead in the second half, only to see the Tigers get hot from the perimeter and outscore them 71-59.

"We led the majority of the game, but I wouldn't say this was the same as in the past, though. It wasn't a matter of being comfortable. It was a matter of Cowely wearing us down a bit and putting together a few runs down the stretch," Popp explained.

"There were a couple of big offensive rebounds that hurt us and a couple of defensive breakdowns in the final minutes that can't happen. In a tight game against a good team, that won't get it done," Popp said.

"But overall, after that game, it was a much better feeling than the other losses," he added. "No loss is a good loss, but I felt like we had taken a step in the right direction. It was the toughest we had played."

Early signs of fatigue

The Grizzlies' schedule began to catch up to them on Saturday against the Panthers. After a sluggish start that saw the Grizzlies trailing 41-35 at the break, the team came out with renewed life and outscored the Panthers 58-39 in the second period.

"Saturday, we looked tired in the first half, which is not an excuse, but the guys did fight through it to overcome," Popp said. "We took a step back in the first half, but then made some steps forward again in the second. As long as you can continue that, you're going to get somewhere."

Several Grizzlies made positive contributions in both games. Redshirt sophomore forward Quentin Jones turned in a career high 32-point performance against Cowley, and freshman Zavien Smith-Morales stepped in for an injured Taevon Horton Saturday to guide the team from the point and score 15 points.

"A number of players had good stretches," Popp said. "Q is playing really well right now. He struggled early on but has learned when to be aggressive. Zavien continues to learn and get better. He's a competitor. He's a player who finds ways to get things done. Franklyn Petion also had his best two games this past weekend.

"We have a lot of weapons. It wasn't one or two guys who went to another level. A big key to a any team is that the members know their role and do their job, and we're starting to understand our roles and starting to do our jobs more consistently," he added.

Up next

The Grizzlies' next game will be at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, against the 4-1 St. Louis Community College Archers in St. Louis.

On Dec. 3, the Grizzlies return home to host Link Year Prep from Branson in the annual Toy Toss game sponsored by Holiday Inn Express and Suites.

Fans who bring a new or gently used soft toy to toss onto the court when the Grizzlies score their first points will receive free admission. The toys will be given to the Marine Corps Reserve's annual Toys for Tots campaign.

"Any game on the road is a tough game, and St. Louis is playing well," Popp said. "Link Year is a prep school with a lot of D1 talent. That won't be an easy game, either. Looking ahead, there are not any easy games on our schedule."

The Grizzlies will close out the fall semester Dec. 13-14 at the Hy-Vee Classic hosted by Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.

For more information about the Grizzly Basketball program, visit www.msuwpgrizzlies.com or call 417-255-7991.