By Devin Golden
COLLEGE PARK — Too many turnovers, and too many points left off the scoreboard ended a season.
North Murray High School’s boys basketball team lost 48-39 Saturday against Woodward Academy. The defeat ended the Mountaineers’ season in the second round of the Class 3A state tournament, the furthest the young program has gone.
But the final game of the year will be more about what could have been after a night filled with turnovers and missed free throws.
Region 6 champs Woodward (25-5) built a 41-23 lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter after Corey Hicks’ layup followed a North Murray (22-8) turnover. The Mountaineers, the Region 5 No. 2 seed, responded with nine straight points to finish the period trailing 41-32.
Brady Swillng’s steal and layup to begin the final quarter cut the deficit to seven, but seven was close as North Murray could get.
“If I’m not mistaken, we beat them in the second half,” Mountaineers coach Tim Ellis said. “They’re a good team, but give our kids credit — we didn’t lay down.”
North Murray may remember missed free throws more than anything. The Mountaineers finished 6-for-15, the nine misses matching the score difference. Despite leading North Murray with 14 points and 15 rebounds, senior post Zach Vess went 2-for-9 at the free-throw line.
Against Woodward’s full-court man-to-man press, North Murray turned the ball over 19 times. The Mountaineers getting comfortable running plays was something War Eagles coach Anthony Thomas wanted to prevent.
“One thing coach Ellis does with his squad is if you let them run their half-court sets and get open shots, they’ll beat you all day long,” Thomas said.
After Woodward forced turnovers on North Murray’s first two possessions of the game, the Mountaineers broke the press on three straight possessions, all ending in layups.
“When they overextended, we were able to get some easy points,” Ellis said.
If only the rest of the game was as easy.
Entering the second quarter tied 11-11, North Murray didn’t score for the first three minutes. In the stretch, the War Eagles forced five Mountaineers turnovers and took a 21-11 lead. Woodward led 32-18 at halftime.
“In the second, we just weren’t executing past their traps,” senior guard Drew Mosteller said. “I blame that on myself.”
Zach Sanford added 10 points for North Murray. Woodward’s Christian Harrison scored 10 to lead the War Eagles.
All five of North Murray’s starters — Mosteller, Swilling, Vess, Sanford and Austen Horn — are seniors. Sixth man Jacob Sexton also played his final high school season. The group helped lead the 4-year-old program to its first state tournament berth last season and first state playoffs win this year. They also endured a coaching change as Eric Bishop left after last season, and Ellis was hired in the summer.
“This senior group is extremely special,” Ellis said. “I wanted it so much for them. For all of them. For those kids in that locker room who bought into change and embraced it. ... I was really selfish. I wanted one more (game) with them.”
Ellis and his players spoke highly of their fans, who filled the visiting half of the Woodward gymnasium bleachers and stayed and cheered when the Mountaineers exited the locker room after the game.
“If you would’ve told a lot of people at the beginning of the year that we’d make the sweet 16 and knock Gordon Central out of the region tournament, they would’ve laughed at you,” Vess said. “I think we made our county proud, and that’s all we care about.”