For the second year in a row, and for the third time in four years, the Melbourne Bearkatz ended a magnificent season with a loss in the Class AA Final Four.
Melbourne's (41-2) opponent in this year's Class AA state semi-final at Centerpoint High School in Rosboro March 6 was the big, physical Turrell Rockets (25-7).
The two squads battled it out in a true slugfest, with Turrell opening up a little breathing room in the fourth period to post a 51-46 over the Region 3 champions from Melbourne.
While not having much success on the gridiron the past several years, with just one win in two seasons, the Rockets do know their way around the hardwood, winning back-to-back Class A state titles in 1999, and 2000.
The Bearkatz themselves could write a handbook on how to win basketball games, racking up 82 wins the past two seasons while playing into March.
The difference in this year's semi-finals may have come with less than a second remaining in the first half.
With the Bearkatz staked to a six-point lead, 25-19, Turrell's Demorseya Sims jacked a fallaway 3-pointer that found the bottom of the net as the buzzer sounded, cutting Melbourne's lead in half, 25-22, and giving the Rockets a boost of confidence they were lacking the first 16 minutes of play.
"They always hit a shot like that against us," said Bearkatz' Head Coach Mike Watson. "Every time we've played them in the tournament they make a big shot like that. But it's still only worth three points. I didn't think that shot hurt us that much."
Riding this crest in the third period, Turrell opened up with a 7-zip run, giving them a four-point lead, their biggest at that point in the game.
Cody Moser (10 points) stopped the Rocket run with one of his two treys of the game at the 3:08 mark, and Levi Taylor (13 points) added a pair of free throws for Melbourne's only other points of the frame, with Turrell in front 31-30 after three.
Jordan Davidson deadlocked the game at 33-all minutes into the fourth with his fourth 3-ball of the game.
Davidson paced Melbourne with a game-high 21 points.
Turrell pulled in front by five points, 40-35, midway into the fourth before Taylor chipped in with a pair of free throws and Davidson hit a tough leaner in the lane, slicing Turrell's lead to 40-39.
The Rockets immediately went on a 10-2 run to open up a little working room, holding a 50-41 advantage with 40 seconds left in the game.
Melbourne got a layup from Moser and Davidson's fifth triple of the game, but Turrell stayed on top to post the five-point win.
Melbourne opened the game in a zone defense, swarming to the ball when it hit the side of the lane, keeping the big Rockets at bay in the paint.
"We knew going in that they wanted to slow things down; that's their style," said Watson. "I thought we made a pretty good defensive stand."
Davidson hit three treys in the opening frame, and when Moser hit his first shot beyond the arc at the period's buzzer, the Bearkatz held a 20-15 lead.
Melbourne's defense continued to frustrate the Rockets in the second period, holding them to four points in the frame until Sims tossed up his desperate trey that went in at the halftime horn.
"We had a chance to stretch the lead out on them," Watson said. "We were up by six and could have turned it into at least 10, but we wasted some opportunities and let them back in it."
Hunter Caraway finished with two points for the Bearkatz.
In quarterfinal play, the Bearkatz withstood a firestorm of 3-pointers from the Hector Wildcats to advance with a hard-fought 60-56 win March 5, with Andrew Treat tossing in the biggest two points of his Melbourne career.
With the contest deadlocked at 56-all and a scant 12.6 seconds left on the clock, Treat calmly sank a pair of free throws, his only points of the game, to put the Bearkatz on top 58-56.
It was then Nick Davidson's turn to step up big time. He stripped the ball away from Hector as they headed downcourt looking for a response to Treat's charity tosses.
The ball rolled to Jordan Davidson and he flipped it to Moser.
Moser was immediately fouled, and with 3.7 ticks left in the game, he nailed two big free throws to ice the game for the Bearkatz, capping an impressive comeback.
Trailing for most of the game, by as many as 11 points, the Bearkatz stood their ground and took control in crunch time.
The Wildcats were up 56-51 with 1:53 left when Melbourne made its move.
Jordan Davidson (14 points) popped a triple, and Taylor (21 points) hit a layup to lock the game at 56-all, setting up Treat and Moser's big free throws.
Getting to the point were they could win it late almost proved fatal to the Bearkatz.
It seemed like every time Melbourne threatened to make a run, the Wildcats would simply nail a 3-pointer.
For the night, Hector rang up 10 triples, including six by Jeff Duvall.
The two squads hit the floor pretty evenly matched, as the first period ended in a 15-all knot.
Hector turned up the heat in the second, with Duvall canning three straight 3-balls for the Wildcats, staking them to a 26-18 advantage.
The Bearkatz fought back, using a traditional 3-point play from Taylor and a coast-to-coast layup by Jordan Davidson to chip into the Hector lead.
Closing the first half with a trey and layup of their own, the Wildcats held a 33-27 lead at intermission.
Streaking out to a 10-5 run early in the third, the Wildcats upped their margin to 43-32, knocking the Bearkatz back on their heels a bit.
Melbourne didn't stay down long as Moser (nine points) drilled a triple, followed by one from Jordan Davidson, as the Bearkatz pulled within five, 43-38.
Duvall had an answer for Hector in the form of a shot beyond the arc, before Melbourne ended the frame on a 7-zip runout.
Hacked in the act of shooting a trey as the buzzer was ready to sound, Jordan Davidson toed the free throw line and knocked down three freebies, pulling Melbourne within a point, and giving them a much-needed shot of confidence.
This boost carried over into the last frame as the Bearkatz stormed back to win in impressive fashion, 60-56, over Hector.
Hunter Caraway tallied eight points for the Bearkatz, while Nick Davidson finished with three.
"I think playing two games like that in less than 16 hours caught up to us," Watson said. "Going into the Turrell game we were mentally and physically spent. It took everything in our power to beat Hector, and then we had to turn around and face Turrell, so I think that had a big effect on our play in the semi-final round."
In first-round action, Melbourne blew the doors off the Kingsland Greyhounds 53-30 March 2 behind Jordan Davidson's game-high 22 points.
Kingsland entered the contest with Melbourne at 27-7 and ranked number nine in the ranks of Class AA.
Taylor added 19, with Moser hitting for six. Nick Davidson and Treat posted two points each, while Matt Wheeley and B.J. Gillaspie logged a point apiece.