JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Three Rivers coach Gene turned 82 on Friday.
His family sang him "Happy Birthday" as he walked off the court. The team sang it when he walked into the locker room.
The family sang it again at the team dinner at Applebee's. Bess got a free dessert, didn't want it, and team radio announcer Roger Burton took one for the team and ate it.
The No. 3 seed Raiders started the celebrations with 71-70 win over No. 2 Mineral Area in the Region XVI Tournament semifinals on Friday.
"The league I think is the best I've ever seen. The top two, I really believe the team that wins tomorrow night will do pretty well in the national tournament," Bess said. "This a great region. Four different teams that are just pretty solid."
It is the first time since 2012 that Three Rivers has advanced past the Region XVI semifinals.
"Just to get past the first round is a crazy feeling. I was just telling the guys how big a win this is. This is such a hurdle, even before I got here," Three Rivers sophomore Gabe Grant said. "Just the circumstances of being this close is huge."
Three Rivers (24-7) and Mineral Area (28-3) split in the regular season, with the road team winning by two points each time. All three of Mineral Area's losses were against region opponents.
In the rubber match, on neutral ground, it was tied with 12 minutes to play. Three Rivers leading scorer Camron Reedus drove and drew a foul that put the Cardinals in the bonus.
Reedus, who led all scorers with 25 points, made those free throws and made a point of driving to the basket over the next three minutes. He was 4 for 6 from the line and the Raiders were 5 for 8 during the stretch as Three Rivers built its first double digit lead.
Reedus added a jumper and a 3 off a turnover for to finish the 11 point run. The Cardinals were still down nine with 2 minutes to go, then got a tip in off a missed second free throw and a 3 that cut the lead to three points with 90 seconds left. "Down here late, we started acting like we were a little afraid all of a sudden and it hurt us. We've just got a bunch of kids who haven't been through all this stuff and it was a good experience for us," Bess said. Reedus missed a 3 and Kavion Pippen grabbed his only offensive rebound of the game. Three Rivers burnt some time, and Grant, who finished with 12 points, sank a jumper off an assist from Reedus with 37 seconds left.
Zac Cuthbertson got a quick layup for the Cardinals, who started fouling. The Raiders missed three straight free throws and Mineral Area had the ball, down three with 15 seconds left. Shawn Roundtree was open in the corner for a 3, but had his foot on the out of bounds line and turned it over. With five seconds left and Three Rivers ahead by two, Aidan Saunders stepped to the free-throw line and sank both before Tyler Kohl-Ross sank a meaningless 3 at the buzzer.
"This is a phenomenal win. We've got to enjoy this for a few minutes and then we've got to get a good night's rest and get back ready to play," Bess said. Known for balanced scoring all season, the Cardinals had four players score in double figures and its top two scorers were off the bench. Djibril Diallo led the Cardinals with 16 points and Kohl-Ross had 15. Roundtree added 14 points and Cuthbertson had 10.
Three Rivers freshman forward Mamadou Diakhaby injured his knee less than 2 minutes after coming off the bench. With the game tied at six, Diakhaby tried to draw a charge against Diallo and stayed on the ground after. "I actually look up to him because he is a warrior. We want to do it for him. We hope he gets back because this hurts," Grant said. "Me and him, our stories, we've been through so much."
Ludy Kayouloud subbed in for Diakhaby at the time and got 9 minutes of playing time. "He's had a good attitude. He went out there and played like he had no fear and got some things done," Bess said of Kayouloud. Kayouloud has appeared in 16 games for the Raiders, but had not played more than 3 minutes in a game against a region opponent. He finished with four points and four rebounds against Mineral Area.