By BLAKE MCCORMICK
While Laurel Hill will always be Paxton’s top traditional rival, in many ways, Malone has emerged as the Bobcats’ arch nemesis within the last dozen years or so. Fans of both schools have packed each others’ gymnasiums with electric crowds to witness two of the state’s most competitive Class A programs swap big district victories during that time. Malone has won most of the more valuable games in the series but Paxton turned the tables in a big way last season by astonishingly defeating the Tigers four times, including a monumental victory in the Regional Final that catapulted the Bobcats into the state tournament. Even the two teams first meeting this season was a classic, with Paxton winning a 57-54 squeaker in Malone on Dec. 15.
But, if it hadn’t been for their vintage Orange and Black uniforms with “Malone” printed across the front, you would not have known it was the 14-time state champions that were in town for the second regular season match-up between the schools on Thursday, Jan. 26 in Paxton.
There weren’t vehicles lined up out on U.S. 331, the gymnasium had an abundance of empty seats and Paxton’s home crowd was so unusually mundane that coach Jeff Bradley could be heard giving his team instructions from the opposite side of the gym during a timeout.
And when Paxton closed out their 68-54 victory over the visitors from Jackson County, there were no students rushing the court, no fans hovering around soaking up the moment, no players taking celebratory pictures or acting more enthused with themselves than if they had just completed an intra-squad practice. The Paxton cagers simply received a sparse golf clap from their fans in a matter-of-fact victory that saw them walk off the court with their 20th win of the season.
Just what in the name of Chai Baker (a former Malone player) was going on?
While Paxton entered Thursday’s game having already clinched the top seed in the upcoming district tournament, the Tigers came in with a rather pedestrian 11-9 record and having already suffered three district defeats to three different teams, something that rarely happens by Malone standards.
The first quarter was exciting, as Malone’s Taqualyn Brelove scored on three straight possessions, giving the Tigers a 7-2 lead before Zach Varnum made a couple of nifty lay-ups to make the margin 7-6. A three pointer by Fred Trawick and a field goal by Taylor Brown gave Malone a 12-6 lead before Varnum answered with two inside baskets and Hunter Allen connected on a buzzer beater field goal to end the first quarter in a 12-12 tie.
In the second quarter, Malone’s Odarius Murff connected on a lay-up and subsequent free throw to pull the visitors within a 19-18 margin. But from there, Paxton took control as Garrett Bodie scored 10 of his 17 points on the night in the period and sent the Walton County club into halftime with a 34-25 lead.
Allen turned a Varnum block into two points and Bodie hit a three point shot to help Paxton start the streaky third quarter with a 6-0 run that made the score 40-25. Then, Malone went on an 11-2 run to cut the margin to 42-36 thanks largely to Trawick connecting on three consecutive three point shots before Paxton baskets by Connor Varnum and Zach Williams, along with a pair of free throws by Gabe Nelson to give the Bobcats a 48-36 lead entering the final quarter.
Paxton pulled away in the final quarter, opening with a 15-3 run. Malone responded with a 15-5 run of their own to close the game, but the die in this contest had long since been cast, and the Bobcats earned their sixth consecutive victory over Malone dating back to last season.
Zach Varnum led all scorers with 23 points while Garrett Bodie had 15 and Gabe Nelson and Hunter Allen pitched in 10 each.
Paxton improved to 20-4 overall and 12-0 in the district with only a road game at Baker on Jan. 31 before the Bobcats host the District 1, Class A tournament the week of Feb. 6.
By BLAKE MCCORMICK