As much as basketball means to Kael Combs and as much as it occupies his time and attention, he doesn’t try to act like he completely understands the game and all its complexities.
Widely acknowledged as the best player in SWMO, Combs missed his first six shots from the field and his first two free throws in Monday’s Class 6 District 5 title tilt showdown with Kickapoo.
Likewise, Nixa has been the area’s top 3-point shooting team. But the Eagles missed their first five 3-point attempts.
The incredibly slow start, which saw Nixa essentially spot Kickapoo a 20-point second quarter lead, proved too much to overcome in the Eagles’ 68-60 setback to the Chiefs.
“Basketball is weird,” Combs said. “Sometimes, you come out slow and sometimes you come out fast. It’s a game of runs. There’s no reason why we came out slow. It is what it is.”
Nixa (28-1) never did get rolling from 3-point territory. The Eagles were 3-of-17 beyond the arc in the first half and finished 8-of-30 from downtown.
“Just an off night,” Nixa coach Brock Blansit said. “They just weren’t falling and we have good shooters. It was one of those nights. That’s how basketball goes.”
Blansit added he didn’t think the frenzied atmosphere affected his players’ shooting touch and he was satisfied with the looks they had.
“We’ve played in games like this all year,” he said. “I’m not sure there is much I would change. We got great shots we’ve made all season.”
Combs’ career hasn’t seen him face much adversity, save for a broken hand he suffered from a moment of frustration his sophomore year. But he had hardships hanging over him after being scoreless in the first quarter and with Nixa trailing 29-9 in the second quarter.
At that juncture, Combs’ shooting chart for nine quarters of post-season play showed him shooting 29 percent (12-of-41) from the field. He was 6-of-19 shooting against Ozark and 6-of-16 versus Joplin.
Combs responded like the legend he became this winter. He proceeded to score 36 of Nixa’s last 52 points. He had six 3-point goals and finished 14-of-30 from the field.
“It definitely tested my resilience,” Combs said of his rare shooting slump. “My teammates were all telling me, ‘Keep on going, we’re right behind you, just lead us.’ I trusted myself and my teammates to keep on going and try to make it a game and win the game.”
Meanwhile, Kickapoo’s Brayden Shorter had a hot hand from the outset. He had four 3-point goals in the first quarter and finished with 28 points.
“I heard (Nixa’s student section) behind me saying, ‘Nope,’ and ‘That’s off.’ They tried to get me down but I knew I was hot from the moment I took my first shot,” Shorter said. “That Nixa team is so good. Me and (Combs) matched up pretty good. He played really well. But we played better team basketball and that’s why I think we won.”
"We lost (Shorter) a few times in the press and they got some open 3s and he made us pay,” Blansit said. “He’s been one of the best players in the area the last three years. He started the game out really hot. He can really shoot.”
Nixa’s full-court pressure forced repeated turnovers to help the Eagles cut Kickapoo’s lead to 10 on multiple occasions. But the Chiefs (21-8) also broke the press repeatedly and converted on layups. Jackson Shorter thrived in such situations on his way to a 19-point night.
“What they want you to do is dribble (against the press) because that’s slower,” Kickapoo coach Mitch McHenry said. “There were times we did dribble and didn’t connect passes. For the most part, I felt we did a good job of connecting passes two or three at a time, which allowed us to find some guys on the back side of their press.”
Nixa appeared to have a grand opportunity to cut further into Kickapoo’s lead early in the fourth quarter, when Chiefs point guard Trae Oetting went to their bench in foul trouble. Instead, the Eagles fell behind by 14.
“(Oetting) has been our primary ball-handler the whole year. The ball has been in his hands pretty much the entire time,” McHenry said. “For us to be without him for a long stretch in crunch time and build on the lead was huge.”
Still, Nixa proved to be an amazingly tough out.
Kickapoo was up by 16, 62-46, with 3:00 remaining and the Chiefs had already been in the bonus for a minute.
But with Combs scoring 16 fourth quarter points and Kickapoo unraveling, Nixa was twice within five points of the lead, 65-60, and in possession of the ball.
Alas, the rally fell short, as the Chiefs drew a charge on Combs and on the next Nixa possession Combs was off on a 3.
“Kickapoo deserved it, to be totally honest,” Combs said. “They made their shots. We thought they were just on a run in the first half. But they continued (scoring) in the second half. They were consistent the whole game.”
"We were down by 10 with :30 left and our guys were in the huddle saying, ‘We are going to win this game,’” Blansit said. “They literally believed until the very end they were going to win and I thought we were going to, too.”
Kickapoo 68, Nixa 60
KICKAPOO (68) — B. Shorter 9 5-6 28, Akins 1 0-0 2, Oetting 2 4-6 9, J. Shorter 9 1-2 19, Doenning 2 5-6 9, Kimrey 0 1-2 1.
NIXA (60) — Peters 3 0-0 7, C. Kemp 2 1-2 6, Engelman 3 0-1 6, Combs 14 2-5 36, Hines 1 0-0 2, D. Kemp 0 1-2 1, McCoy 0 2-2 2.
Kickapoo 21 12 15 20 - 68
Nixa 8 15 14 23 - 60
3-point goals - Combs 6, B. Shorter 5, Oetting, Peters, C. Kemp.
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