PARK HILLS, Mo. — The Raiders felt slighted after not earning votes in the NJCAA preseason poll. Moberly Area was 11th, Mineral Area was 20th, and regular opponent John A. Logan was eighth. Nearly two months after that first poll came out, the Raiders are undefeated heading into the annual Peoples C o m m u n i t y Bank Thanksgiving Tournament at the Bess Activity Center. Three Rivers won 85-63 against Carl Sandburg Community College (Ill.) on Friday and beat Southeastern Illinois College 87-55 on Saturday in the Bob Sechrest Classic in Park Hills. "I think our program is on better footing now (than a few years ago)," Three Rivers coach Gene Bess said. "This is the second straight year that we are getting back to competing like we used to. I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't do well after Christmas."
The Raiders (8-0) beat No. 8 John A. Logan 75-63 in their only game against a ranked opponent so far. The next national poll will be released Dec. 7. Last season and in 2014, Three Rivers was 11-1 at the time of that poll. It was ranked 11th last season in early December and 12th in 2014. Both times, the team struggled through December, fell out of the rankings, never made it back, and lost to Moberly Area in Region XVI Tournament semifinals.
"We've learned a lot and we still have to get better in several areas to compete against people in our region," said Bess, who picked up career win No. 1,239. Three Rivers also entered its Thanksgiving tourney undefeated in 2014, but didn't come out of it that way after losing the final night on a buzzer beater by Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
Kavion Pippen led the Raiders in scoring this weekend with 18 points in each game. He added 10 rebounds Friday and nine Saturday. "He's really picked up his game," Bess said. "He's getting more consistent every ball game and he intimidates a little bit (on defense)." It's the sophomores first double-double of the season and third as a Raider. Pippen has scored in double figures four times in seven games, and in each instance he shot better than 60 percent from floor. He was 8 for 12 (67 percent) against Carl Sandburg on Friday, which was the second most shots made and attempted by the 6-foot-10 forward this season. His six offensive rebounds also matched a season high. On Saturday, he went 9 for 14 (64 percent) with six more offensive rebounds. After averaging 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman, Pippen is putting up 12 points and 8.3 rebounds on 58 percent shooting and has started each game this season after getting five starts as a freshman.
Against Southeastern on Saturday, the Raiders jumped out to an 26-12 lead after hitting five of their seven 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes. The Falcons hung around and cut the Raiders' lead to eight points at halftime. "We felt like we'd seen the tide turn and we turned everything around at halftime," Bess said. "The two assistant coaches (Brian Bess and Bryan Sherrer) really got them focused." Three Rivers' defense improved in the second half and held Southeastern to 25 points. The Falcons shot 26 percent overall. Gabe Grant had 14 points and 11 rebounds off the bench for Three Rivers and got his first double-double of the season. Mamadou Djakhaby, replacing Grant in the starting lineup and in his first start, had four points and six rebounds. Camron Reedus added 11 points and five assists and Aidan Saunders got 10 points. "Tonight we saw some guys off the bench contribute. We look now like we can go about three or four deep and not hurt ourselves too much," Bess said. On Friday, Saunders put Three Rivers ahead double digits with a pair of free throws 7 minutes in and just before halftime, Smith's jumper pushed the lead to 20. Late free throws by Carl Sandburg made it 47-29 at the break. Carl Sandburg got as close as 12 points in the second half before Three Rivers answered with a 10-2 run that included a pair of jumpers from Pippen.