The Columbia Eagles know the value of taking care of the basketball and their 57-35 Class 3A regional victory over the Waterloo Bulldogs on Wednesday night was a prime example of that.
The No. 2 overall seed in the Highland Sectional, the Eagles were guilty of just three first-half turnovers – two of them on charging fouls – as their superior ability to take care of the basketball allowed them to jump out to a big early lead that Waterloo never really threatened.
Columbia led 17-3 by the end of the first quarter and 29-13 at halftime. The Eagles’ lead never dropped below 14 points in the second half.
With the win, the Eagles (21-6) advance into Friday’s 7 p.m. championship game against the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Mater Dei (20-7) and Cahokia (12-15).
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“Taking care of the ball while forcing turnovers on the other end is a big part of our game,” said Eagles guard Jonathan Holmes, who led all scorers with 17 points, “and honestly, tonight was probably the best we’ve protected the basketball all season. For us to have just one forced turnover, that was huge.”
Avoiding turnovers, however, proved to be an issue for Waterloo. The Bulldogs had as many turnovers (five) as shots in the opening quarter, allowing the Eagles to seize early command.
They followed with four more in the second quarter, all them in a span of seven possessions, when it looked like they might fight their way back into the game.
“Taking care of the basketball is something we’ve been doing well recently, but that didn’t seem to the be the case tonight,” said Waterloo coach Dane Walter, whose team ended its season 8-22. “But give credit to Columbia. Their defense dictated what we did more than we usually allow.
“It’s hard to put a run together when you’re not even getting shot opportunities.
The game was essentially decided in the opening 12 minutes.
Five quick points by Jonathan Holmes staked Columbia a 5-0 lead and baskets from Korbin Farmer and Ryan Guedeman in the opening quarter’s final 41 seconds had the Eagles up by 14.
Waterloo did make an effort to get back into it, baskets by Griffin Lenhardt and Dylan Hunt drawing it to within 21-11 at the 4:38 mark of the second quarter.
But back-to-back turnovers opened the door for a 6-0 run by Columbia that featured a pair of Korbin Farmer free throws and baskets from Gudeman and Drew Huebner.
The Eagles never led by less than 14 the rest of the way.
“Once again, that was our defense,” said Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom, whose team has won five in a row. “We are just so active. Our kids take so much pride in being in the right position on the floor, learning the scouting report.
“They’ll bring that kind of intensity again Friday, no matter who we play.”
Jonathan Holmes topped all scorers with 17 points and got a lot of credit from Sandstrom for his play in the early going.
“Johnny’s a big-game player and we expect nothing less than what we saw from him tonight,” said Sandstrom. “With it being our first postseason game, it was important for him to get us going like he did tonight. It kind of took the pressure off.”
Farmer finished the game with a double-double, 13 points and 10 rebounds, and was part of the strangest play of the game during the second quarter, when he had a pass attempt that was blocked by a Waterloo defender go into the basket.
“Nothing else was going in for me, so it was nice to see it go through the hoop,” said Farmer, who grabbed eight of his rebounds on the offensive end. “I was trying to get the ball to the man in the corner and the defender jumped and deflected it into the basket.
“I don’t think I could do that again if I tried too.”
Gudeman also scored 13 points for the Eagles.
After putting up 22 points in a 58-42 first-round regional win over Freeburg on Monday, Waterloo’s Ben Huels followed with 16 against Columbia.
But the junior guard struggled early, scoring just four points in the first half. The Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer, Griffin Lenhardt, finished with just eight points.
“I thought we did a good job on those two, with the exception for a couple of shots,” said Sandstrom. “It seemed like we challenged almost everything. We knew if we made it tough for those two, and I believe we did, we didn’t think they’d have enough firepower to beat us.”
Despite the loss, Walter said the future could be bright for his Bulldogs. Waterloo’s regional win over Freeburg was its second in a row — it defeated Civic Memorial 61-60 in its regular-season finale — following an 11-game losing streak.
Waterloo started four juniors and a sophomore and had just one senior on its roster.
“We’ve grown a lot over the last few weeks and in a lot of ways finished strong,” said Walters. “We came into the season with little to no varsity experience. We told them after the game, ‘we’re not young any more, they’re upper classmen now.’ So we won’t be able to use that excuse next season.”