Considering all of the obstacles Three Rivers has faced this season, it’s on an upward trend at the perfect time.
Despite losing a handful of players, including the second-leading scorer in the nation, to either injury, transfer, ineligibility or dismissal, the Raiders have managed to win three games in a row heading into the Region XVI Tournament.
The most recent game, a 62-point obliteration of West Kentucky Community Technical College, as soon as it started. The Raiders jumped out to a 77-17 halftime lead and finished the game with a season-high 30 assists, beating their previous high of 22 by a wide margin.
To start the game, the Raiders knocked down their first three shots, all 3-pointers, and the makes became contagious. Three Rivers made up for the loss of sharpshooting starter Hayden Sprenkel by going 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) from deep in his honor. Sprenkel hurt his knee during Friday’s practice.
Three Rivers coach Gene Bess initially feared the injury was moderate to severe, but Sprenkel was a full participant in Monday’s practice and should have the green light to go — and keep shooting — in the region tournament.
The freak occurrences have continued to add up. Monday, Khalil Johnson caught an elbow early in practice and sat out the rest of the day after a knot formed on his head.
Nonetheless, the three straight wins leave a sense of optimism around the Raiders. Their current three-game winning streak matches the longest of the season.
“I think that we feel good about the way we’ve kind of rallied and got together here late,” Bess said. “But we know it’s all for naught if we don’t get fired up and go up there and win that first game Thursday because this is what it’s all about.
“All of these games up to this point are insignificant. The only thing important to junior college teams in the region.”
The Raiders will face a familiar foe in Thursday’s semifinals, going up against Missouri State-West Plains. The Raiders have met the Grizzlies three times already this year, one more than they're accustomed to since both teams played in a non-region game in mid-November.
The Grizzlies have won each of the three meetings, but none of the wins have come easy. West Plains escaped the non-region home game against the Raiders with a 112-110 overtime victory. It beat Three Rivers by 89-82 in the Bess Activity Center in January, and pulled away in the last five minutes of the final meeting for a 114-101 win on Feb. 9.
“I think we’re a better team now,” Bess said. “I think we’ll handle a lead better and play better than we have in the first three. You know, it’s hard to beat a team four times in their role. We just have to gear up.”
The Raiders get one more chance to avenge those losses when it matters most, and their season depends on it. A loss would finish off a second consecutive losing season, the only two Bess has ever coached in his 49 years at the helm.
One option Bess is keeping open is going deep into his bench for players who will give the extra effort. He noted the possibility of Clay Mullins and Destine Russell, two late additions to the roster who haven’t logged a lot of minutes, getting more playing time in the tournament.
“They’re both competing pretty well,” Bess said. “They’re playing better defense than some of our other guys. I wouldn’t be afraid to stick them in there and see them perform in this region tournament.”
With a win, the Raiders are on to the region championship despite a season that has been riddled with obstacles.
“I like the way they’ve responded down late considering all the stuff they’ve gone through,” Bess said. “But if we don’t do well up there in that region tournament, that’s going to make us feel kind of bad about this year. We’ve got a chance to redeem ourselves up there.”
Thursday’s game will start at 8 p.m. in Jefferson City.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic