Within the first few minutes, there was no question Three Rivers was going to walk out of its regular-season finale with its third straight win. The only question was how big the margin would be, and if the Raiders would set their single-game points record, surpassing the 138 points they scored in 1994.
They didn't quite get that far after slowing the tempo down in the second half, but after getting out to a 77-17 lead in the first half, Three Rivers went on to lock up a 109-47 win over West Kentucky Community Technical College.
"We needed a game like this, I think, because we've been struggling all year," Three Rivers coach Gene Bess said. "To be frank with you, I thought we really could've gotten off to a sluggish start. This little team from Paducah, they play hard and they're so well-coached.
"We just came out and hit the first three 3s we took and that set the tone for the whole night."
The win is the third in the row for the Raiders, but the bad news is sharpshooter Hayden Sprenkel hurt his knee in practice Friday and it's uncertain how long he'll be sidelined. The good news is Mineral Area defeated State Fair, so Three Rivers gets five days off before facing Missouri State-West Plains for the fourth time this season in the semifinals of the Region XVI Tournament.
The Raiders (13-17) are 0-3 against West Plains this season with their largest margin of defeat being 13 points. Three Rivers is clicking right now, though, and Saturday was as good of an indicator of that as any.
At times, the Raiders' style of play mirrored that of an NBA All-Star game. It was free-flowing and featured several alley-oops off the backboard and a first-half poster from Tallon Fonda.
Fonda led all scorers with 23 points, and he pulled down nine rebounds while shooting 11-of-15 from the floor. He also added four assists and three steals in his 26 minutes. Austin Parker finished with his second straight double-double, totaling 20 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. Abiodun Ayetimiyi nearly had a triple-double with nine points, nine boards and nine assists in 23 minutes.
"What's fun is we play as a team and we share the ball and everyone was really having fun. Even though we have one of our good shooters injured, we don't let it affect us," Ayetimiyi said. "We just go out and play like a team and have fun."
On the season, Sprenkel is averaging over eight points per game and shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.
Destine Russell saw his minutes increase and finished with his first game in double figures with 13 points in a season-high 19 minutes.
The Raiders went on a 22-0 run in the first half when it seemed like they could do no wrong, holding West Kentucky CTC scoreless for over six minutes during the stretch.
"All year, coach believed we were going to be a shooting team, but it wasn't really going like we planned," Ayetimiyi said. "But today, everything was dropping just like we planned and everything was going fine, so we're happy about that."
In the second half, the Raiders were focusing on moving the ball for open looks, slowing the pace way down in order to work on their halfcourt sets. It worked, too, as the Raiders racked up 30 assists.
"We wanted to kind of work it and get a little teamwork involved, and I thought the guys did a pretty good job passing the ball," Bess said. "You never get enough of that. We didn't want to just wipe the opponents out because they're hurting this year kind of almost as much as we are."
Defensively, Three Rivers forced 21 turnovers, 19 of which were steals. They ended with 32 points off turnovers.
Next up, Three Rivers will travel to Jefferson City to face MSU-West Plains in the Region XVI Tournament semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic