MILLEDGEVILLE – The stage was set in Milledgeville on Saturday, and the Missiles and Polo Marcos didn't disappoint.
To accomodate all the fans in this rivalry showdown, an additional set of bleachers was set up on the stage overlooking the court. In the end, the Missiles took sole possession of second place in the NUIC East with a 55-48 victory.
A 3-pointer by junior Blake Kappes right off the bat got Missile fans into the game, as well as foreshadowed the night for his team's outside shooting.
Defensively, the Missiles had their hands full, as they had to keep their eye on Polo's 6-foot, 7-inch junior AJ Dollmeyer down low. This required a change in defense, and it worked well for Milledgeville (14-2, 5-1).
"We actually had to play off of our normal style for him," Missile coach Brian Rahn said. "We like to press and create turnovers, and things like that. But we knew that with him in the game, if we extended out, we would leave him one-on-one, or with an open look. We stuck with our zone, but we didn't trap as much out of it, and tried some different things that way in order to make it hard for him to get easy looks. I thought the thing we did well that we don't always do well is rebound."
"They just did a really nice job of surrounding him," Polo coach Matt Messer said, "and making sure he got his hands on the ball where he couldn't really go anywhere with it. They were really aggressive defensively, got to him, and made sure that he was always surrounded. He never really got any clean looks at the basket."
Another 3-pointer by Kappes to beat the first-quarter buzzer gave Milledgeville a 15-8 lead after one. But like any good rivalry game, a comeback was in the cards.
The leader of that surge for Polo (18-3, 5-2) was athletic senior guard Brian Cavanaugh. He started things off by knocking down a 3, and followed that up by taking a rebound coast-to-coast for a layup. He scored nine of his 13 points in the quarter.
"We have come to expect that from Brian," Messer said. "He's a senior, and has done a nice job picking up slack when we're struggling. He can go get it done by himself. Today he did that, expecially in the second quarter."
Unfortunately for the Marcos, the Missiles found an answer in junior Jordan Harris. He hit a pair of 3s in the quarter, helping to preserve his team's lead. Although Polo did cut into the Milledgeville lead, the Marcos still trailed 27-23 heading into the locker room at halftime.
Both teams had balanced attacks on offense in the third, as 10 different players scored in the stanza. However, it was the Missiles who extended their lead by two points, to 42-36, which set up a thrilling fourth quarter.
A basket from Dollmeyer, who had only six points going into the fourth, sparked up the Polo fans and bench. However, his basket was quickly answered on the other end by junior Lucas Ebersole.
Ebersole's basket was followed up by another Harris 3, which made the hometown Milledgeville crowd explode.
"We just worked their zone," Harris said. "They play an extended 2-3, and we just had to pass the ball a lot, and shoot the open shots. We happened to make a lot of them today. This is the most important game to us, and we have been waiting for this one all year. We have so much support in our community and all around us. It feels good to give back."
Another 3-pointer from senior Kameron DawTyne gave the Missile fans even more to cheer about, as it came a mere 34 seconds after Harris'. This gave Milledgeville a 50-38 advantage with 5 minutes left to play.
"That's one of our strengths," Rahn said. "I think that sometimes we rely on it too much, but when we are hitting shots, it is nice. One of the differences tonight was that the shots we were getting were inside-out and already squared to the basket, which meant our shots were in rhythm."
The epitome of that inside-out play for the Missiles was their last bucket, the metaphorical dagger.
With 90 seconds left, Harris got the ball on the left wing. He pumped to get his defender in the air, then drove into the high post, where he jump-stopped. As he went to take a jump shot, a cutting Ebersole flashed right under the hoop behind the Polo defense.
Harris snapped a pass into him, where Ebersole went with his forward momentum and finished a reverse layup. Polo tacked on an additional pair of buckets, but it was too late, as the Harris-Ebersole connection had secured the 55-48 victory.
"It's a huge win," Rahn said. "We have a great rivalry, and it's one of those rivalries where the kids respect each other. Both teams are going to play hard, and after the game, you understand that it's just an opponent."
Milledgeville 55, Polo 48
Star of the game: Jordan Harris, Milledgeville 18 points.
Key performers: AJ Dollmeyer, Polo, 12 points, 12 rebounds; Caleb Skoog, Milledgeville, 5 points, 10 rebounds, 7 steals, 2 blocks
Up next: Aquin at Polo & Forreston at Milledgeville, both 7:30 p.m. Tuesday