STRAFFORD — There were a few fascinating statistics from Saturday’s Strafford Tournament final, perhaps none more compelling than Jake Lafferty not taking a field-goal attempt the first five-plus minutes of the fourth quarter.
Lafferty’s supporting cast scored Sparta’s first 12 points of the fourth quarter. Several of them introduced themselves at the varsity level with extremely encouraging efforts in the Trojans’ 67-61 triumph against the host Indians.
Lafferty did his usual all-state thing, collecting 26 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots.
One doesn’t have to be a soccer mom to highlight his lesser-known teammates the likes of Trenton Ingle, LeeAnthony Mayes and Rowdy Ball. They served winning roles, as well, by combining for 29 points.
“Those are the guys I knew were going to step up for us,” Lafferty said. “We've got dudes who are going to give 100 percent all the time. That’s what I like about this team. I enjoy playing with every single one of them.”
“Jake has belief in the other guys. They all believe in each other,” coach Deric Link said.
This time last year, Ingle was playing on Sparta’s C team. Saturday, the upstart sophomore hit a pair of 3-pointers and scored 12 points.
“I never had an experience like this before, so I’m trying not to take it for granted,” Ingle said. “I'd never seen anything like this before. This was the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of. That definitely added to the nerves. But I had confidence in myself. I knew I have what it takes.
“I was waiting for my chance last year. But my defense wasn't great,” he added. “I worked on it over the summer and in our practices and earned myself some playing time. I want to show what I can do, that I know what I’m doing and I can play.”
Ingle scored 10 points while hitting a pair of 3-point goals in the first half.
“My coaches are always telling me I'm one of the better shooters on the team and they want me to shoot as much as I can. I listen to them," Ingle said. “The first two games my shot wasn't really falling, but this game I started to light it up.”
“My teammates were letting me know at halftime how good I was playing,” he added.
Link wants to tell Ingle to be sure to read the sports section.
“I hope he reads this because I want him to know he can be a game-changer for us,” Link said. “Trent has no clue how good he can be. He brings another dimension to us. Good size, smart, he can shoot it, he has a good understanding of the game and is competitive. He's got to get stronger and he will.
“He's a kid who played on our C team last year, played sparingly on our jayvee team and now is playing varsity,” Link added. “That doesn't happen too often.”
Mayes made his varsity debut last year, but only in mop-up duty.
“Just a couple minutes here and there,” Mayes said of his experience last season. “I worked hard over the summer because this is what I wanted.”
Mayes was rattled initially by Saturday’s championship-game atmosphere, but settled down to contribute eight points and tight perimeter defense.
“It was hard playing in (the loud Strafford gym) sometimes. But It didn't affect me as much as I thought it would,” Mayes said. “Your focus is on the game more than anything. If you drown (the noise) out, it won't affect you. That’s what coach told us to do. He said, 'Don't listen to the people on the sidelines and focus on our game, play the way we're supposed to play and do what we're good at and we'll win.’”
Strafford lost an early 9-2 lead while seemingly losing its identity for a long while.
The Indians have long been known for firing in a flurry of 3-pointers. Although they had success from 3-point land, they were a modest 2-of-4 shooting 3s in the first half and 4-of-7 on 3s through three quarters.
Strafford tried to rally by making 6-of-10 3s in the fourth quarter.
Guard Cody Voysey, who transferred from Ozark to Strafford a couple years ago, sat a good portion of the first half with two fouls and two points. He had 17 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter while making five treys.
Sparta’s biggest lead was 14, 49-35. The Trojans didn’t let Strafford closer than six points down the stretch, with Lafferty’s supporting cast scoring 14 of the champs’ 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Walker Loveland’s stats line included seven points, five assists and two turnovers opposite Strafford’s full-court pressure.
Lafferty, widely acknowledged as the best player this season in all of SWMO and often a man amongst boys, didn’t need to be overly assertive. He was 9-of-13 shooting from the field.
All in all, Strafford did a credible job on Lafferty. He got his hands on only one offensive rebound.
With Lafferty’s supporting cast no longer anonymous and now proven commodities, no one’s going to be calling Sparta a one-man show.
“Every guy has to have a piece with what we're doing,” Link said. “We don't have three guys who can get 20 points like we did last year. We've got a lot of guys who can go get 5-10. It's going to be spread out.”
"Last year, we were bigger and stronger. This year, we have more guys who can score,” Lafferty said. “We’ve got to be dawgs because we're smaller than last year and we're not an athletic team. Honestly, though, I think we're either just as good as we were last year or better.”
Sparta has reached the championship game in seven of its last eight tournaments, including Districts, dating back to the 2021 Walnut Grove Tournament. The Trojans now have won two straight championship games, after losing thier previous five.
Sparta’s celebration, appropriately, was a team effort.
“It was crazy, a lot of energy in there,” Mayes said of the winners’ locker room. “Teammates being teammates congratulating each other."