Monticello hangs tough against Meridian

DECATUR – When Nathan Swarts thinks about sitting on the bench, he displays a puzzled look on his face and just shakes his head. His face becomes almost as red as his hair, and he can't even put into words how angry the prospect of watching his Monticello teammates from the sideline makes him feel.

"Geez, I don't even want to talk about that," Swarts said after his Sages dropped a 69-60 Okaw Valley Conference tournament semifinal game to Meridian on Tuesday. "I know that I just hate sitting on the bench."

He hates it, but there he was Tuesday sitting for six-minute stretches in both halves while battling foul trouble. And with the 6-foot-5 Swarts sitting, the Hawks took advantage. Forty of their 69 points came in the paint thanks in large part to the slashing of guard Jacob Shasteen, who poured in a game-high 30 points.

But despite his limited minutes, Swarts filled up the stat sheet. He recorded a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) and was a big reason the Sages (16-6) held Meridian scoreless for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter and cut a 15-point lead to six.

"He just picked up some fouls early, and we tried to preserve him as much as we could," Monticello coach Kevin Roy said. "Obviously we like having him out there, but some other guys stepped up. Cale Huisinga came in and did a nice job and put in 10 points for us, so I was pleased with the help off the bench."

Getting help off the bench from players like Huisinga will be important for the Sages in the final three weeks of the season. And if Swarts can stay on the floor and guys like Neal Phelps (19 points) and Corbin Sebens (10 points, five assists) continue their regular contributions, Monticello can make a deep run in the Class 2A tournament.

The Sages used Tuesday's game against the Hawks as a barometer for where they stand, and they said there is plenty of room for improvement.

"I think we need to get a lot better," Swarts said. "I just think sometimes we can work together better as a team and just our execution. We can definitely do it, we just need to focus and keep our eyes on the prize."

Monticello and Meridian each received votes in the latest Associated Press Class 2A poll, and Roy said it's good to play such a good team in a tournament environment with the playoffs quickly approaching.

"We just played one of the premier teams in the state, in our opinion, and I think it helps us," he said. "We take some confidence out of it. We had our opportunities, and we were right there with them."

Said Swarts: "It gets us mentally focused. Hopefully we can learn from this, come out stronger from it and end the regular season strong and carry that into the playoffs."

W-L 58, Unity 49

Unity held a five-point lead heading into the second half against Warrensburg-Latham, but the Rockets were outscored 30-16 the rest of the way in the other semifinal.

Unity's Zebo Zebe was held to six second-half points after posting 15 in the first half. Tim Collins added 12 in the loss.

The Rockets will face Monticello on Friday in the third-place game.

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