With all the breaks going the way of its pesky adversary, Smithville stood little chance of keeping pace with Lafayette on Friday.
With the way the Midland Empire Conference champion Fighting Irish ran roughshod over the rest of the league this year, it may not have mattered either way.
Lafayette waited a little bit longer than normal to conjure one of its foot-on-throat sequences but ended up cruising nonetheless to a 66-48 victory, outscoring the Warriors 36-23 in the second half.
The Irish (20-3, 7-0) seized their fourth win or share of the MEC crown in the past five seasons — their first outright since back-to-back solo titles in 2009 and 2010 — and gave coach Chris Neff his fourth 20-win season in six years at the helm.
“To go undefeated in the conference is awesome; that’s what Coach wanted,” forward Jeff Leeson said moments before helping cut down one of the nets at Lafayette High School. “We didn’t want to share it with nobody.
“It feels good.”
Smithville (17-7, 4-3) dropped its eighth straight against the Irish but showed signs of a bunch capable of matching the No. 3 ranked team in Class 4 according to the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association.
Then, disaster struck.
The Warriors’ top two scoring threats, guard Brock Mick and Derek Howe, both fouled out in the fourth quarter — a frame where they trailed by just eight with 4:57 remaining but were outscored 11-4 from that point on. Howe picked up his fourth foul on a called push then his fifth after exchanging words with an official.
Guard Billy Cook calmly sunk the ensuing free throws, and Austin Day made two more on the same possession to make it 50-37 a minute into the fourth.
Cory Marmet’s lay-in cut the lead to eight moments later, but forward Jeff Leeson (15 points) nailed the last of three treys on the Irish’s return trip down the floor.
Playing without Mick (20.4 points per game) and Howe (15.4), the Warriors never threatened again. Mick scored just four points against a rangy Lafayette defense that closed off lanes to the rim in the second half and forced Smithville into mid-range jumpers, most of which were too strong.
Irish forward Xavier Kurth came alive for a game-high 19 points, 13 after halftime, and Lafayette clamped down defensively in the second half. The Irish enjoyed a 19-11 advantage in fouls, too, much to the chagrin of an incensed Smithville contingent.
“We took a really good punch from them tonight, and we responded pretty well,” Neff said. “Some things happened that went our way.”
Jazzed with the energy from possibly its largest home crowd of the season in conjunction with winter homecoming festivities, Lafayette took a tenuous 30-25 advantage into the home locker room at halftime after barely outlasting a sporadic effort from Smithville.
Smithville closed the first quarter on a 9-2 run via a lightning-quick transition game, then slowed things down in the second with a handful of long, drawn-out possessions. The Warriors only finished on a couple of them, but the time drained off the clock kept Lafayette from putting together one of its customary second-period pullaways.
In six previous MEC games, the Irish had outscored opponents 128-62 in the second quarter.
Instead, Lafayette needed one of Leeson’s two first-half 3s and a 1-on-3 turnaround lay-in from Kurth to break a 25-all tie forged by Howe’s 3-point play that knotted the score at 25.
Lafayette led by as much as 17-8 in the first quarter on 3s by Cook, Leeson and Day in that order. Smithville coach Chad Jones called a timeout, and the Irish scored just once the rest of the opening frame.
Such first-half equality may be indicative of a Class 4 District 16 championship preview. Missouri’s big-school district tourneys haven’t been seeded yet, but the Irish and Warriors look like the favorites to meet with a state playoff spot on the line.
“I think we’ll probably see them in the championship game,” Leeson said.