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Advance, Bernie to meet for title in rubber game
Don't be surprised if, at some point during tonight's Class 2 District 3 championship game, you look out on the floor and see three sophomores in Advance's lineup.
Hornets coach Josh Dowdy used that approach during the fourth quarter in Tuesday's semifinal win against Meadow Heights, and he liked the results.
"I am very proud of those guys," Dowdy said after Advance's 81-62 win against the Panthers. "They don't have a lot of experience at the varsity level, and I know this isn't the time to get it, but I think I need those guys down the stretch in order to achieve some of our goals."
The first goal would be a win in tonight's 7:30 district showdown matching a pair of state-ranked teams. Advance, 22-6 and ranked No. 10 in the latest Class 2 poll, takes aim at Bernie, 25-3 and ranked No. 3. Advance is the top seed in the district after splitting two games with the Mules during the regular season.
Advance lost the first meeting 57-52 at home Jan. 9, but then upended Bernie 72-69 on Feb. 12 in the third-place game of the Stoddard County tournament.
If the Hornets can pull off a win tonight, it would be a big boost toward one of their other goals: the state tournament.
"It's been our goal since the beginning of the season," said Grant Gray, one of the sophomores who played a big role Tuesday. "For our seniors, this is their last year, and I just want to play as hard as I can so they go to state, hopefully."
The Hornets have eight seniors, including standouts David VanGennip and Jacob Bond, but Dowdy was willing to sit some of those older players to give Gray, Darren VanGennip and David Dunivan a chance to contribute in extended action during the district tournament.
"I'm just trying to work some kids in," Dowdy said, "but I'm questioning some of our kids' will to win right now. If they're not going to step up and show how bad they want it, they're going to sit."
So in stepped the three sophomores, combining for 22 points in a make-or-break game.
Gray had nine points, hitting a 3-pointer in the first quarter to give his team its first lead (15-13) and another with 5:07 to play that provided the dagger by ending a five-point Panthers run that had closed the gap to 66-55.
"I was just thinking in my head, I'm hoping I make this," Gray said.
He had another fourth-quarter basket on a nice feed from Bond for a layup.
Cody VanGennip scored seven of his nine points in the second period to help Advance build a lead of as many as nine, 29-20, while Dunivan also scored during that stretch.
"We needed that effort tonight," Dowdy said. "We needed that energy, and I thought those kids provided that for us."
Can they duplicate the effort on a bigger stage, against a team that has improved even since the previous meetings?
Bernie added 6-foot-5 junior Jake Smith to the lineup last week after he had been injured during the Mules' run to the Bloomfield Invitational championship. He did not play in either of the previous games.
"They're an unbelievable team," Dowdy said of the Mules. "They can shoot from anywhere on the floor. They've got the big boy back, and he's obviously going to provide a presence for them."
Bernie coach Brad Botsch is concerned with Advance's inside presence, 6-3 David VanGennip.
"Advance is a good basketball team, no doubt about it," Botsch said. "They do a lot of things well, and they've got a real premier player in David VanGennip. We're going to have to do a lot of things right to beat them."