JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri State-West Plains outlasted Three Rivers in a thrilling Region XVI Tournament semifinal.
Evan White gave the Grizzlies their first lead since the 17:35 mark of the second half with a put-back to make the score 63-61 with six and a half minutes left in the game. Sardaar Calhoun followed up by stretching the lead when Tallon Fonda was late to slide over for a block and was called for a goaltend on the next possession.
Three Rivers trailed for the next four minutes before Mandarius Dickerson made a pair of free throws to give Three Rivers a 71-70 lead with 2:19 left in the game. Eric Lovett went backdoor for an and-one to put West Plains back in front for good.
"That was huge on their part. That gave them a lot of intensity. I think that actually put them up by one. They just kept going after that. That was their go-to right there,' Austin Parker said.
Three Rivers had a chance to tie the game, but Parker's 3-pointer hit the front of the rim, and Lovett grabbed it and made a pair of free throws to seal the game, giving West Plains a 78-73 win.
"We just wanted to get one more game under our belt," Three Rivers coach Gene Bess said. "We had every reason to believe we were going to win this one. We played pretty well, but when it really got down to crunch time, we just didn't quite have it together when we needed."
The loss marks the fourth this year for the Raiders when facing West Plains. Three of those losses came by seven points or fewer.
Fonda led Three Rivers with 18 points but was held to two in the second half. Abiodun Ayetimiyi tallied 17 points and 11 rebounds, giving him a double-double in the final game of his career.
The Raiders (13-18) became the first team to lead by more than four points in the second half when Parker spun toward the baseline and banked in a shot through a foul for a 3-point play with 16:15 left in the game. Parker tallied 14 points and eight rebounds.
Three Rivers finished the game ahead on the glass with a plus-one rebounding margin, but West Plains got the boards when it mattered most.
"First half, we were all locked in and hyped up, but the second half we didn't crash the boards as much as we should've. That was the thing, we just didn't crash as much as we should've.
West Plains quickly got it back on the other end when the referee determined Parker slid over late to take a charge. The Raiders again responded, though, boosting their lead to eight when Ayetimiyi grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked it out to Hayden Sprenkel for a deep triple.
Meanwhile, the defense held the Grizzlies scoreless for nearly three and a half minutes before Houston Johnson pulled down an offensive rebound and stuck it back to break the cold spell.
"They got about three or four difference-makers," Three Rivers coach Gene Bess said. "I don't know how (Ayetimiyi) could've played any harder. He had his own mistakes, but boy, he really battles the boards."
White followed with a teardrop floater after a drive down the lane, but Sprenkel answered with an even deeper 3 to stretch the lead back to eight points.
The Grizzlies (20-11) started to catch fire, though. Johde Campbell buried a corner 3 to start a spurt of straight points. Johnson followed up with a put-back after snagging an offensive rebound, something the Grizzlies began to do frequently in the second half.
West Plains tied the game when Ayetimiyi missed a 3 on the wing and Campbell grabbed the long rebound and went coast-to-coast to tie the game with 8:15 to go.
After six turnovers in eight minutes, Dickerson hit a crossover, drew the help and dropped a perfect pass to a wide-open Parker who threw down a one-handed dunk and go back up by a bucket. West Plains followed up by taking the lead and hanging on.
Nothing was solved between the two teams early on, entering halftime knotted up at 40. Three Rivers was plus-four on the glass through 20 minutes, a pleasant change of pace for a team that averages a minus-3.4 margin on the boards.
The game was neck-and-neck for the most part during the opening half as neither side led by more than four points. Tallon Fonda was feeling it early. He opened Three Rivers' scoring from the field with a 3 in the corner that took a high bounce off the rim and dropped in. Fonda scored 16 of his points in the first half to pace both sides.
West Plains' longest run early on was 7-0, while Three Rivers went on an 11-3 spurt to take the lead again in a half that had 10 lead changes and five ties.
Three Rivers finishes its season with a 13-18 record, the second consecutive losing season and the only two losing seasons in 49 years under Bess.
"A lot of people thought we finished the season pretty good with more talent that we had," Bess said. "That might summarize it up better than anything."
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic