Boys basketball: Bulldogs turn attention to postseason

Feb. 16—OTTUMWA — Within seconds of the final buzzer sounding on Tuesday night at Evans Middle School Gymnasium, Neil Hartz was out on the court encouraging his team.

There is still work to be done for the Ottumwa High School boys basketball team this season. That work will continue on their home floor this Monday when the Bulldogs host their first postseason game in three years.

Fort Madison prevented Ottumwa from wrapping up the regular season on a winning note, rallying in the fourth quarter for a 69-64 win over the Bulldogs playing spoiler on Senior Night with Rahsha Pope and Javen Rominger being honored along with OHS senior managers Sylvie Monaghan and Hallie Leonard prior to the game.

"It's one or done at this point," Hartz said. "The kids deserve this. They worked their tails off all year to earn a home playoff game. That's been one of their goals all season. Winning 13 games is a very successful season, but we're aiming to win our 14th on Monday."

It appeared Ottumwa would go into the postseason with 14 wins, building a 61-54 lead over Fort Madison with 3:28 left on Tuesday. Trae Brown scored on a transition lay-up off a block by Parker Derby for two of the junior's 27 points, leading all scorers in the regular-season finale for both teams.

"The defense was focusing a lot on me. I was getting face-guarded at one point, which got me tired," Brown said. "I just tried to push through. It just didn't work.

"There were no calls again, but you can't whine about it now."

Brown was held without a point over the final three minutes, but not for a lack of trying. The Bulldog post presence had to deal with the physical play of Fort Madison teammates Hunter Cresswell and Dayton Lamar as the Bloodhound teammates combined to score 30 points while pulling in 19 rebounds.

Carter Thompson sank a 3-pointer with less than three minutes left that seemed to be a dagger for the Bulldogs, building a 64-56 lead. Carson Rashid, however, quickly answered for Fort Madison sinking a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession for the Bloodhounds cutting Ottumwa's lead to 64-59.

"We needed to stay composed and stay into what we do," Fort Madison head boys basketball coach Ryan Wilson said. "We tried to do some things differently on (Brown) defensively. He had been wrecking the whole game, so we tried to mix up our defense to try and take him away."

The Bloodhounds would hold Ottumwa without a point after Thompson's 3-pointer, scoring the final 13 points of the game. Five of those 13 points came from the free throw line as the Bloodhounds finished shooting 16-21 while Ottumwa was just 5-12 with just two foul shots in the final three minutes compared to six shots from the line by Fort Madison.

"They let a lot of physicality go on one side and not the other," Hartz said. "It is what it is. Being just 5-12 from the line hurts. I thought we should have shot a few more, but at this point, it doesn't matter."

Rashid broke away for a game-tying lay-up with 1:09 left after stealing the ball from Thompson. Parker Derby, who finished with 10 points for Ottumwa, missed the only two free throw attempts in the closing minutes for the Bulldogs setting the stage for the Bloodhounds in the final minute.

Fort Madison worked deep into the shot clock before finding Cresswell, who drove to the basket and was fouled by Derby while scoring the tiebreaking lay-up with 25.3 seconds left. After converting the 3-point play, Cresswell closed out an 18-point night for the Bloodhounds by sinking the two game-clinching free throws with 11 seconds left after a missed shot by Pope that would have pulled Ottumwa within 67-66.

"Hunter's a great player for us. He works hard and has a unique skill set where he can shoot it from just about anywhere," Wilson said. "The biggest thing is he's totally unselfish. If somebody's open, he'll find them. Hunter did a great job down the stretch and made some free throws that iced it for us."

Nolan Guzman added 13 points while Lamar posted a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double for the Bloodhounds, who will carry an 11-8 record into Class 3A, Substate 5 first round action on Monday at Williamsburg. The substate, headlined by 20-1 Solon, features six teams with winning records.

"Any of those six teams could walk away with our substate," Wilson said. "I really think it's up for grabs. It's all about who's going to show up and preform each night."

Ottumwa will take a 13-7 record into the postseason, opening with 6-15 Iowa City High on Monday. The winner heads to Cedar Falls (18-3) for the Class 4A, Substate 6 semifinals on Feb. 23.

"A lot of it comes down to day one and buying into what Coach (Jeff) Smith and I are trying to teach them," Hartz said. "Once they bought in, it just started to steamroll for us. It's been fun and hopefully it continues beyond Monday night."

Pope finished with 11 points for Ottumwa while leading the Bulldogs with six assists and three steals. Part of the story of the turnaround this season for the Bulldogs from 6-16 last season to 13-7 so far this season has been the growth of Pope as a floor leader at the point guard position.

"He had grown into being a floor general with that ball in his hands," Pope said. "It's amazing how he's slowly learned from his sophomore season to where he is now taking on the roll of taking the ball and getting us where we need to be."