BATTLE CREEK -- His team down 20-19 with 1 second left in the first half, Pierce's Taggart Bailey had yet to score.
But a buzzer-beating 3 not only ignited the Bluejays' leading scorer, it sparked a 10-2 run that helped carry Pierce to a 51-44 win over Norfolk Catholic in the first round of the Mid-State Conference tournament here Thursday.
"That, obviously, was a big play right before half," Pierce coach Mike Emory said. "They'd made a little run there, then he gets a 3 to lift our spirits a bit. We had a lead after the first quarter, and that kind of evaporated a bit. But I think we got control back in the third quarter."
Bailey, who finished with 19 points, provided the second act for Pierce after Brady Starkel scored 13 of his game-high 20 points in the first half. Starkel knocked down four 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes of the game as Pierce jumped out to an 18-11 lead before the Knights rattled off a 9-1 run.
David Engelhaupt followed a Jacob Molacek 3 with an inside basket to put the Knights ahead 20-19 before Bailey buried his first basket while drawing a foul as the second-quarter buzzer sounded. He missed the free throw but scored 11 points in the third quarter as Pierce built its lead to 37-27 before the Knights trimmed it to 39-34 entering the fourth.
"I thought, offensively, we did a little better in the second half and defensively did a little better in the first half than the second half," Norfolk Catholic coach Shane Anderson said. "Ten (Starkel) hurt us in the first half, and Taggart had a good second half. Those two guys are tough to guard."
Myles Vrbka opened the fourth quarter with a basket to pull Norfolk Catholic within 39-36, but a pair of jumpers by Bailey and a driving layup from Starkel extended the Pierce lead to 45-36 with 4:38 left. It wouldn't drop below six points the rest of the way as both teams struggled from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.
Pierce was 4 of 8 in the fourth quarter and finished 6 of 13 in the game, while the Knights were 3 of 8 in the fourth quarter and 7 of 16 in the game.
"We normally shoot about 75 percent as a team, so it's disappointing not to just go ahead and finish it there, but thankfully we had a big enough cushion that it didn't hurt us," Emory said. "We played team defense. We told our guards they have to harass their guards as much as we can to help the posts out inside, and I thought our guards did a really good job pestering them and forcing them away from the basket so their looks (inside) were longer."
Against the smaller Bluejays, Engelhaupt and Matt Miller -- both 6-foot-4 seniors -- scored 11 points apiece to lead the Knights. Vrbka added 10 points, and Molacek finished with nine while hitting 3 of 4 3-point attempts.
The Bluejays, who were 7 of 13 from outside while improving to 15-3, were scheduled to face Guardian Angels Central Catholic in a 7:45 p.m. semifinal at Northeast Community College on Friday. Norfolk Catholic (7-13) was to meet Hartington Cedar Catholic in the consolation semifinals after falling to Pierce for the second time this year -- the Bluejays won 75-58 on Jan. 9.
"We kept it within seven here, and I think we can find enough free throws to make that up," Anderson said. "I'm not really that disappointed in how we played. We just missed a couple opportunities."
Norfolk Catholic ................ 6 14 14 10 - 44
Pierce ............................... 13 9 17 12 - 51
NORFOLK CATHOLIC (7-13): Jacob Molacek 3-4 0-0 9, David Engelhaupt 5-6 1-1 11, Myles Vrbka 3-8 4-7 10, Matt Miller 4-6 2-8 11, Andrew Fleecs 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 16-25 7-16 44.
PIERCE (15-3): Austin Freeman 1-1 2-5 4, Brady Starkel 6-11 3-4 20, Mason Buckendahl 1-2 0-0 2, Taggart Bailey 8-11 1-4 19, Braydan Waldner 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 19-30 6-13 51.