JOPLIN — With Joplin’s All and Always Wright doing their thing at the other end of the court Wednesday, Nixa’s Kael Combs showed he isn’t all or always left.
Combs went to his left hand and his right hand for 16 points in Nixa’s 66-39 Class 6 District 5 semifinal victory against Joplin.
Combs twice drew a foul while making a shot in the paint with his right hand.
Combs and his younger brother, Jaise, are the only southpaws in their family. Everyone else, including former Nixa standouts Braeden Combs and Jalen Norman, are right-handed.
Kael learned at an early age not to be solely dependent on his left hand.
“When I was little, my Dad and my trainers tried to get my right hand involved very quickly in my training and progression because we knew it would help me long term,” Combs said. “I’ve always had a right hand. I like to dribble when I go to the paint with my right hand. My right hand has always been there. It’s something I can fall back on.”
Combs can also rely on his defense as a difference-maker. With Combs picking up two steals and deflecting the ball away from Joplin players on two more occasions, Nixa jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
Joplin’s first nine possessions included six turnovers and zero points.
“We set the tempo quickly, that was something very important that we did,” coach Jay Osborne said.
Combs triggered Nixa’s defensive effort by being aggressive along the perimeter.
“He showed his athleticism tonight,” Osborne said. “He took some gambles on defense, but when he gets to the ball it pays off for us.”
Osborne added he’s fine with the risk/rewards ratio when Combs is gambling by leaving his man to go for a steal.
“Not always, but most of the time,” Osborne said. “It kind of depends on where his man is. If he’s on the perimeter, it’s no problem. If he’s under the goal, it’s a problem.”
“When I went for the steals, I knew it was a gamble,” Combs said. “But I would rather try to get the ball out of one of the Wright brothers’ hands. If they had their back to me, I went to try to make a play and was leaving my man because I knew he wasn’t as much a threat as those two were.”
Combs had 11 of Nixa’s 22 points in the second quarter.
“We ran some design stuff for him at the end of the first half,” Osborne said. “It paid off for us.”
Nixa cleared the court for Combs to take his defender to the bucket.
“I always like a clear-out to show what I can do,” he said. “My teammates feel confident in me to get a bucket to let me clear out. (Coach) was laughing on the bench and telling me they can’t guard me.”
Colin Ruffin added 14 points, as he draws closer and closer to possibly joining Nixa’s 1,000-point club. Osborne and assistant Brock Blansit think if Nixa can make the Final Four, Ruffin has a realistic shot at the 1,000 milestone.
Nixa (25-3) is the only COC team still playing in the post-season. By ousting Joplin, Nixa upped its streak of wins against COC opponents to 27 dating back to the 2019-20 season.
Nixa has put together back-to-back seasons of at least 25 wins for the first time in Osborne’s 30-year tenure and only the second time (1977-78 and 1978-79) in school history.
Nixa has won an even 300 games (300-75) over the past 13 seasons.
Nixa won its first two District games easily, even while being a bit uncomfortable playing at Joplin. Both of Nixa’s games were played while it was daylight outdoors and the windows at the east end of Joplin’s gym allow the daylight into the gym.
“With those windows up there, when it’s bright out, you can’t see anything from a spot in the corner,” Nixa center Colten Berry said.
“With light coming through the windows, it’s difficult to play a 6 o’clock game in here,” Osborne said. “7:30 ought to help us.”
The opening tip for Nixa and Kickapoo in Friday’s final will be at 7:30 p.m.
Osborne is hoping a Nixa-Kickapoo girls-boys double-header will at least make for a decent turnout. Joplin’s gym was three-quarters empty Wednesday.
“It’s not your typical District tournament atmosphere, that’s for sure,” Osborne said.
JOPLIN (39) — Alw. Wright 2 6-8 10, All Wright 7 2-4 18, Renfro 0 2-2 2, Jones 0 2-2 2, Atherton 1 0-0 2, Hafer 0 2-2 2, Gibson 0 0-2 0, Morris 1 0-0 3.
NIXA (66) — Ruffin 4 4-5 14, Turner 3 0-0 7, Combs 7 2-4 16, Bell 2 6-6 10, Engelman 1 1-2 3, Nelson 3 0-0 6, Berry 5 0-2 10.
Joplin 7 12 9 11 - 39
Nixa 16 22 17 11 - 66
3-point goals - Ruffin 2, All Wright 2, Turner.