By FRANK CASH
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Andy Anderson will always have a fond place in his heart for the four seniors on this year's Canton boys basketball team.
Not only did they lead the Tigers to their most successful season ever with a trip to the Class 2 state tournament, but Anderson – Canton's head coach – is confident they'll be remembered for their leadership and determination.
"These guys worked extremely hard the past four years to get to where we were this weekend," Anderson said. "They did everything they needed to have success. That will be remembered for a long, long time."
Friday night, the Tigers put a heartbreaking semifinal loss to Iberia behind them with a 61-54 victory over Thayer in the third-place game at Mizzou Arena.
Just 24 hours earlier, Canton led Iberia the entire game until losing the game 66-65 on a buzzer-beating putback.
That was a tough moment for the players to handle.
"We were definitely down after that," Tigers senior Tyler Niemann said. "Our morale was low after the game last night, but we picked it up. We were loose in the locker room before tonight's game, and that helped when the game got a little tight."
Canton, which finished 28-2, led Thayer the entire game. The Tigers led 44-33 after Brandon Berhorst sank two free throws with 4 minutes, 47 seconds left in the game.
The Bobcats (27-5) began to press and trap Canton defensively during the final four minutes of the game, forcing turnovers and eventually cutting the lead to 52-47 when Jacob Foley drained a 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:32 left.
However, the Tigers knocked down their free throws, making eight of nine from the line the rest of way to put the game away.
"We had to scramble a little bit at the end to have a chance," Thayer coach Matt Pitts said. "Canton, along with Sacred Heart (in the semifinals), was one of the most athletic teams we faced all year. We dug ourselves a hole early in the game. We gave ourselves a chance late, but the damage had been done."
Canton was excited to hang on to capture the third-place trophy – the first state hardware in program history – especially after an eight-point, fourth-quarter lead had evaporated against Iberia.
"We had to work hard to get out of this one," said Berhorst, one of the team's four seniors. "It feels great to win your last high school game, yet sad at the same time. We've been working for four years to get to this point."
Gabe McKenzie, who was held to eight points against Iberia, finished with game highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds, while Niemann scored 19 points. Berhorst added 14.
McKenzie and Cameron Durst, both juniors, will be the Tigers' only returning starters next year.
"We'll prepare for next year just like we did this one," McKenzie said. "It'll be the same mentality … to be the best we can be. We'll get back here if we can."
For now, Canton isn't worried about next year, content to savor only the triumphs of this season.
"This was a great experience, not only for me, but for the players and the entire community," Anderson said. "It's just something that doesn't happen that often."
The Tigers' players are quick to credit Anderson.
"None of this would've been possible without Coach," Niemann said. "It's definitely been a fun time, and he's the reason for it."