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Loss in Willard Tournament final ends Eagles' regular-season win streak at 35 games

NIXA'S KEIVON FLINT drives to the bucket against Bentonville at the Willard Tournament final Saturday.
NIXA'S KEIVON FLINT drives to the bucket against Bentonville at the Willard Tournament final Saturday.

WILLARD — Brock Blansit joked earlier this week he received 400 congratulatory texts upon getting the first coaching victory of his career a year ago, but after his first win this season no one sent him a message.

One year and a handful of days after his first win, Blansit was dealt his first regular-season loss Saturday. Nixa bowed to Bentonville 54-48 in the Willard Tournament championship game. “

“That’s the way it goes. You’re not going to win them all,” Blansit said.

Nixa had won 35 straight regular-season games during a streak that covered parts of three seasons. The Eagles’ last regular-season loss had been an NIT setback to Blair Oaks in January of 2022.

Blansit’s bunch lost in unusual fashion, with Nixa losing range on its 3-point shot.

The Eagles made their first three 3-point shots, but went on to finish 5-of-23 from beyond the arc. During one stretch, they missed 11 straight 3-point tries. 

Nixa (2-1) managed just eight points in the fourth quarter.

“We had trouble putting the ball in the hole,” Blansit said. “Most of our possessions, we got good shots and we’ve good shooters. It will come around. We’re still trying to figure it out. There will be some growing pains.”

“This year, we’re trying to find our offense,” Eagles forward Josh Peters said. “Last year, we kind of knew what everyone was doing. We had better chemistry early in the year. We’re just trying to figure stuff out this year. It’s going to be a work in progress.”

Peters paced Nixa with 17 points. His 17 came without the benefit of a free throw. He repeatedly found open lanes to the bucket for high-percentage shots, but wasn’t able to draw enough contact to go to the foul line.

Refreshingly, the officiating crew blew a reluctant whistle on shot attempts in the paint, making the players earn whatever they got.

“Overall, I was getting to the basket and I was happy with what I shot,” Peters said. “(The refs) let us play. There were couple times I thought we could have got calls on our drives. Other than that, they called it pretty good. 

“I like to compare it to AAU ball. They’re definitely letting us play a lot more (this season),” he added. There are times they’ve got to call some of the body checks and slapping of the hands. But they’re calling it pretty good.” 

“We’ve got to find a way to get Josh to the line,” Blansit said. “In three games, he’s shot two free throws. He’s getting to the basket. Sometimes, maybe he needs to lower his shoulders and get into the defense to get to the free-throw line. But he really played well tonight. They put a lot of focus on him. He’s attracting a lot of attention. That’s something he’s going to find each game. He’s going to have to stay after it and keep working at it. I know Josh will.”

Nixa received 11 points from center Adam McKnight and 10 from guard Devon Kemp.

Nixa’s only 3 of the second half was a Randy Flint trey with 2:29 remaining that tied the scored at 48.

Bentonville’s Jayvn Williams put the Wildcats up for good at 50-48 on a layup with :58 to play. 

Williams may be missing a second vowel in his first name. But he didn’t miss anything while scoring 18 of his 24 points in the second half. He was 7-of-7 from the field after halftime.

Williams had five 3-pointers.

With :36 left, Peters did draw a foul as he received a pass in the paint. But the Eagles were not in the bonus.

Following a Nixa miss with :20 remaining, Flint and two Bentonville players reached for the rebound before hitting the ball out of bounds. A 50/50 call went the Wildcats’ way, as officials ruled the ball went off of Flint.

Bentonville clinched its win by proceeding to make four free throws.

Free throws actually hadn’t played much of a factor until the final seconds. It was in contrast to last year’s title game, which saw Kael Combs take 18 free throws all by himself. Nixa shot 28 free throws and outscored Bolivar 22-8 on free throws.

Bentonville outscored the Eagles 11-3 on free throws. The Wildcats were 11-of-13 from the foul line while being whistled for 14 fouls. Nixa was 3-of-6 on free throws while being called for 18 fouls.

“I’m disappointed we lost, but our effort was great,” Blansit said.  "We held them to 54 points. If you would have told me that before the game, I would have thought we’d win by double digits.”

Bentonville started its season 0-4, with an 11-point home loss to Parkview among its defeats.

“I knew Parkview was going to be pretty good this year,” Peters said. “I’ve played with a couple of their guys growing up. They’re definitely overlooked.”

Nixa and Bentonville didn’t tip off until 9:10 p.m., or one hour and 40 minutes later than originally scheduled. Preceding games pushed back the start of the final.

“We were all warmed up and ready to go by 8,” Peters said. “Having to sit for another hour was definitely a weird experience. We were going back and forth to the aux gym  doing warmups and trying to get ready to go.”

Nixa’s win streak included six games last season in which the Eagles won by four points or less. Blansit suspects plenty more close contests are forthcoming.

“We’re going to be in a ton of tight games,” he said. “We’ll get over the hump and find a way to finish these.”