BRANSON — College of the Ozarks coach Steve Shepherd’s initial plans for Tuesday evening called for him to make the drive to Republic for the Neosho-Republic game.
He’s hot on the recruiting trail of Republic senior Drew McMillin.
Shepherd got hung up at work, so instead he decided to stay in town and check out the COC opener for Ozark and Branson.
As Shepherd watched the Tigers cut short a Pirates comeback and pull out a 68-58 triumph, he summed up the contest succinctly.
“No. 1 was the difference,” he said.
No. 1 on the Ozark roster has become the Tigers’ No. 1 scoring option. Blaine Cline contributed 25 points to add to his rapidly-growing resume that he hopes will attract a college offer.
Shepherd walked away impressed. Who knows, re-routing his travel agenda for a night might lead to something.
“It’s always good to hear recognition from someone higher up like that,” Cline said. “It drives me to know people are watching.”
Ozark coach Mark Schweitzer, who played at C of O, would love to send another of his players to his former coach. The most recent former Tiger to play for the Bobcats was 2015 Ozark grad Heath Carmichael, who became a member of C of O's 1,000-point club.
“I definitely think Blaine can play at that level,” Schweitzer said. “Any of the small-college programs locally would be lucky to have him.”
Ozark (9-4) felt lucky to have Cline. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter to keep Branson (5-6) at bay. The Pirates rallied from being down 32-16 to being within one of the Tigers, 49-48, a minute into the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Schweitzer called for his players to spread out and work the ball around in an effort to isolate Cline on his defender around the basket.
“Whenever it got down to one point, we knew we had to be patient and spread them out a little more,” Cline said. ‘That was kind of the thing the whole game, if we could stay patient, we could get whatever shot we wanted. We stuck to that and closed the game.
“I felt like I could score every time I had the ball down low,” he added. “They didn’t have a good matchup for me. I tried to exhaust them as much as I could for that.”
“It was good that we got ourselves spaced out like we did,” added Ethan Whatley, who added 14 points to Ozark’s cause. “We had movement without the ball, we weren’t forcing shots and we were cutting and passing. We did what like we do. That opened up the rim for Blaine. There aren’t a lot of teams that can handle him.”
“We don’t win this game without him,” Schweitzer said. “Spreading them out, they couldn’t challenge us at the rim 1-on-1. We won that battle when we got it to Blaine or (Avery) Voysey in the fourth quarter.”
It looked in the first half like Whatley would own easy bragging rights on his long-time summer ball teammates, Branson’s Ethan Jones and Kyle Scharbrough. But Scharbrough scored all 14 of his points in the second half and Jones finished with 24. The Pirates put up 27 points in the third quarter.
“Our help-defense was horrible,” Schweitzer said. “Scharbrough and Jones are good scorers and Branson runs some good stuff to get those guys moving for a 3 or to the rim. But I don’t think our help-defenders were helping very well.
“We didn’t play great by any means,” he added. “Branson played extremely hard. They were on the verge of being blown out, but they came back and fought. That’s what happens in this conference every single night. This was a great COC opener.”
The Tigers can give notice they’re ready to be a serious contender in the COC race with a win Friday at home versus Webb City.
“It’s always been a heated contest,” Schweitzer said, referring to the history of the teams’ current seniors through the years. “Webb City is physical. They try to beat you up and bully you around. We don’t take kindly to that. I expect a lot of intensity, pretty much a war. We’ll see who comes out of it.”
Ozark will be out to match its season-high win streak of four.
“Now’s the time to have as big a winning streak as possible, with COC play under way,” Cline said. “I love this time of the season. Every game you really key on your opponent and you know they’re going to key on you, so every game is going to be a good game.”
Ozark 68, Branson 58
OZARK (68) — Cline 10 4-5 25, Brockman 0 2-2 2, Harmon 5 3-8 13, Flavin 2 3-4 7, Whatley 6 1-2 14, Voysey 3 1-1 7. Totals 26 14-22 68.
BRANSON (58) — Jones 8 6-6 24, Ascone 4 0-0 10, Scharbrough 4 4-7 14, Blackwell 1 0-0 2, Cooper 1 0-3 2, Goodwyn 3 0-0 6. Totals 21 10-16 58.
Ozark 14 18 17 19 - 68
Branson 10 9 27 12 - 58
3-point goals - Ascone 2, Scharbrough 2, Jones 2, Cline, Whatley.