PARK HILLS — During a season in which it seems like not many things have gone right for Three Rivers, the Raiders still have a chance to come away with the third seed in Region XVI and host a region tournament game.
Those chances received a huge boost Saturday with a momentous win.
The Raiders trailed almost the entire way, erased a double-digit deficit in the second half and overcame a 34-point night from Steve Wooten to win 83-77 over the Cardinals.
"Well, you know, biggest win of my life," Three Rivers coach Gene Bess said. "That's as simple as I can put it. I have two great assistant coaches that had a great scouting report on Mineral Area and did everything we could do to get ourselves prepared."
With Saturday's win, the Raiders secure at least the fourth seed in the region tournament, and they need Mineral Area to beat State Fair in the regular-season finale to claim the third spot and host a first-round game.
Three Rivers didn't take its first lead until the 6:08 mark of the second half on a pair of free throws from Tallon Fonda, who finished with 21 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. Prior to that, the Raiders had trailed by as much as 11 points with the Cardinals keeping them at an arm's length for the first 34 minutes of the game.
"The guys picked their defense up in the second half and we rebounded a little better," Bess said. "Rebounding is a weakness of ours, but we got enough to win tonight."
Miganeh Jama extended that lead to five points with a pull-up 3-pointer near the top of the key to put the Raiders up 70-65. The Raiders turned the ball over in the backcourt, and Abiodun Ayetimiyi took a smart foul to send Gabe O'Neal to the stripe, where he split a pair. However, it was Ayetimiyi's fourth foul, and as a hustle and energy player, he had to be cautious for the remainder of the game.
Wooten got Mineral Area going again with a long 3-pointer, one of his seven on the night as he seemingly couldn't miss from deep. Patrick Strzala nailed an and-one opportunity to give the Cardinals the lead again with 3:28 to go.
With just over two and a half minutes to go, Ayetimiyi found himself in traffic on a drive to the hole, but he alertly dropped off a perfect pass to Jama for a layup along the baseline. Jama led Three Rivers with 22 points in 28 minutes.
That play sparked an 8-0 run that sealed the game for the Raiders. Ayetimiyi again found Jama along the baseline, and this time, Jama had to pump fake and lean into a layup attempt to avoid his defender as he dropped in another bucket.
Mandarius Dickerson came up with one of his game-high six steals on the next possession, and while he was running in transition he lobbed the ball to Fonda, who finished off the alley-oop dunk to get the Raiders bench in a frenzy.
"(Dickerson) is kind of coming into his own," Bess said. "I'm hoping he matures and just provides that spark that we need like he did tonight."
Fonda ended up on another fast break, but he was fouled as he went for the dunk before knocking down a pair of free throws to cap the run.
Fittingly, when it came time for Mineral Area to start giving fouls, Hayden Sprenkel stepped to the line and delivered. Sprenkel knocked down four clutch free throws to seal the win in front of his friends and family. He's from Bonne Terre, which is about 10 miles from Park Hills, so his family was in attendance. He poured in 19 points and five 3-pointers in a solid effort.
"This is what we expect of (Sprenkel), so he just performed like we expected," Bess said. "He's coming home here. He lives 10 miles from here, and he's been looking forward to this game."
The Cardinals, though, looked as if they would have the ball back with a chance to tie. With Three Rivers leading by three points, a loose ball forced a scrum, but a Mineral Area player called a timeout when the team had none remaining, so a technical foul was issued. Sprenkel knocked down the two freebies, which helped ice the game.
"I just thought it's just like practice every day," Sprenkel said. "We work on free throws every day, and I just stepped up to the line and knocked them down."
That play sealed the Raiders' biggest win of the season thus far.
Three Rivers had a solid day shooting the ball, going 11 for 24 from beyond the arc for a 45 percent clip.
Next up for the Raiders, they'll return home to face Southern Arkansas University Tech at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
"We just have to get back in the gym and work as hard as we can to make sure we secure that (top three seed in the region tournament)," Sprenkel said.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic