The opening minutes of Saturday morning's MSHSAA Class 1 third-place game in Springfield looked an awful lot like the beginning of a semifinal the day before. The St. Elizabeth Hornets went on to better Linn County's boys' basketball team, 66-61.
The Mustangs trailed by 11 points just two minutes into the game versus St. Elizabeth before senior forward Chadley Waltz recorded his team's first two points. After trailing 35-25 into the halftime break, Linn County flipped the script by outscoring the Hornets 20-7 in the third period, and holding a three-point lead entering the fourth.
Waltz converted a pair of free throws with 1:25 remaining in the third quarter to give the Mustangs their first tie ballgame since 0-0. Sophomore Cody Murrell knocked down a three-pointer 30 seconds later, and Linn County had its first lead of the morning.
The fourth quarter saw six ties and four lead changes, although the last time Linn County ever had the advantage was at 57-56 after a Michael O'Kane and-one with two minutes remaining.
"The third quarter's always been our time," O'Kane said. "It's been that way ever since I was a freshman."
When Linn County allowed the first 16 points of the game the night prior versus Jefferson in the state semifinal, the Mustangs never got back within single-digits.
Incredibly, Saturday's game versus St. Elizabeth marked the fifth time Linn County trailed at halftime throughout its improbable fourth-place run.
For the second straight game, the Mustangs had to contend with a dominant inside presence. Ross Struemph and Brady Heckemeyer, St. Elizabeth juniors listed respectively as 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-5, made the Hornets go. Struemph finished with 22 points and 18 rebounds, and Heckemeyer finished with 16 and seven. Struemph had 10 offensive rebounds alone.
"Our post guys had a huge spotlight on them today, and I feel like they played the biggest game they could have played," Linn County coach Jason White said. "We came out a little flat and missed some shots early. In typical Linn County fashion, we came back and found a way to get a lead. We just had to control what their guards did, and we did a good job of handling them. Sometimes, the ball doesn't fall your way and you have to keep trying to play."
The undersized Mustangs did a commendable job of battling against the tremendous size discrepancy. Senior inside-outside man Jase White finished with 13 points and 14 boards, and Waltz complemented his 15 points with 12 rebounds. Both of them found themselves in foul trouble down the stretch, and Waltz fouled out with three minutes remaining. O'Kane finished with 14 points, Kade Ward had 10, and Cody Murrell posted seven.
"They definitely fatigued us as the game went on, and they chipped away," St. Elizabeth coach Dillon Tenholder said. "We knew they would, but eventually we were able to get it done. We played a physical game today, and both teams responded well. Offensively, their big guys getting in foul trouble gave us a major boost."
According to MSHSAA, Linn County officially finishes its season 15-9, although that does not account for its three wins in the Northwestern Invitational Tournament. St. Elizabeth, coming off of an overtime loss to Dora in the semifinals on Friday, finishes 24-6.
"It's funny to say, but we know when we get down we're never out of it because that's when we play our best," Jase White said. "I told our guys the whole time that we got this far for a reason. It didn't work out like we had hoped, but I think we proved that we belong."