After playing for the University of Missouri men's basketball team and all the success he enjoyed as the Mexico varsity boys basketball head coach, Gary Filbert went on to a long and varied career that included serving as an assistant to longtime Mizzou coach Norm Stewart.
Because he also helped create events like the ShowMe Games and The Norm Stewart Classic, this year the latter began naming an MVP in his name for each of its 24 contests in 48 hours.
Perhaps what followed was just a coincidence. Or, maybe, it was just the first chapter of a much greater story. Either way, when the Bulldogs played California on Sunday at 4 a.m. in the Classic, Jai Lawson gave an 11-point, five-steal performamnce that not only earned him Gary Filbert game MVP status, but it also helped Mexico beat the Pintos 66-62.
"This was a tough matchup. California really gets after it," said coach Darren Pappas. "Defensively they use a lot of ball pressure and they like to trap. We knew that going in. What we didn't know is how the guys were going to respond, especially this early in the morning. I'm overall pleased with how we played, but we still have a lot of work to do. It's still early in the season, so hopefully we can work those kinks out and get better."
Once the Bulldogs ended the first quarter up 17-9, Jonathan Grubb sandwiched baskets around a score by J'Maquay McGruder to extend that lead to 23-12 at 6:13 of the second. Because California plays such a wide-open style, it was able to respond by going on 16-4 run that didn't end until 2:17 when Hayden Hoellering split a pair of free throws.
That gave Mexico just enough time to turn field goals from Tyler Spargo and Avion Williams into a 31-31 tie before heading into halftime up 35-32 on a Spargo free throw and a three-point play by Lawson. For the game Spargo had 14 points and six rebounds and Williams added eight points and six boards.
"Spargo struggled a little bit in the first half shooting the ball. At halftime I really tried to remind him that shooters find a way to score," Pappas said. "You don't have to shoot from the perimeter, so he started putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim. He did a phenomenal job and hit some big free throws down the stretch. He gave us vaulable minutes, and we needed that."
The third was all Mexico thanks, in part, to six points each by Spargo and Lawson and two points apiece from Williams, JaSean White and McGruder, who came through with six points and 13 rebounds for the contest. The headline from this change in momentum was definitely the defense, though, as the Pintos were held to just a score each by Trystan Hees and Isaac Ash.
"Lawson is trying to be a leader, a floor general. Being a point guard, he's definitely gotten a lot better with his ball handling and his ability to handle pressure," Pappas said. " I was really pleased when, at the end of the game, we ran a new set we just started working on and he called it out. I had nothing to do with it. That's what I need out of my point guard."
Now leading 53-36 entering the fourth, California head coach Ron Lebel, who held that same position at Montgomery County last year, didn't hold anything back. Instead, he sent players like Jordon Geiser and Ash to the hole time and time again, leading to seven and eight points, respectivelty, for the quarter. Then, with 2:39 and a 61-55 lead, the Bulldogs found a way to use a free throw by Spargo and a basket by Williams, as well as some hard-fought defense, to hold on for the four-point win.
"I knew we had a lot of senior leadership coming back and that was going to help us. Overall I'm pleased, but not totally pleased," said Pappas. "We still have to get better. We let Boonville get back in the game (last Tuesday) in the fourth quarter. This game we went on runs, but then we let California back in it, as well."
Mexico is now 2-0 overall, 1-0 North Central Missouri Conference.