Talk about running through a gauntlet.
That's exactly what the Melbourne Bearkatz went through in a three-day span during their appearance in the 30th Annual North Arkansas Tournament at Pioneer Pavilion in Harrison.
Not only did the Bearkatz have to face a couple of top-10 teams, two of the seven ranked squads in the tourney, Melbourne had to do so without a pair of important pieces, Hunter Caraway and Andrew Treat, both sitting out and nursing injuries.
After knocking off Class AAA member Yellville-Summit 67-50 Jan. 8 in the quarterfinals, Melbourne was rewarded with a date against the Bergman Panthers, the eighth-ranked team in Class AA the next night.
The Panthers, victims to the Bearkatz in the finals of last year's North Ark tourney, gained a measure of revenge, and did something no other team has been able to accomplish in a while -- hang a regular season loss on the Bearkatz. The Panthers then went on to claim the tourney title the next evening with a win over Guy-Perkins.
By beating Melbourne 61-48, Bergman snapped the Bearkatz' 22-game winning streak and stopped their run of regular-season tournament titles at five.
"We didn't handle the loss real well. It's hard. We don't like getting beat," said Bearkat Head Coach Mike Watson. "It really bothers us. We expect to win every single time we step on the court."
Down by as many as 10 points in the third period, the Panthers clawed their way back into contention in the fourth, and sealed the win by canning 10 out of 13 free throws late in the game.
Melbourne held a 28-22 lead at the half, and jumped in front 37-27 midway into the third before Bergman roared back with nine unanswered points to close within one.
Up 41-38 to start the fourth, the Panthers finally knotted the contest at 45-all before grabbing the lead and the game in the last frame.
Jordan Davidson paced the Bearkatz (23-1) with 17 points, while Levi Taylor added 13, and Nick Davidson 10. Andy Miller and Cody Moser tallied four each in the Bearkat loss.
"I thought our guys gave 100 percent effort at 60 percent strength," Watson said. "Hunter can start playing again in two weeks, but I'm not sure when Andrew will be back."
Not content to start any kind of a losing streak, the Bearkatz leaped right back into the win column with a 62-42 win over the Rural Special Rebels the following night, Jan. 10, to claim the third-place trophy in the tournament.
The Rebels (17-2), ranked sixth in Class A, were also coming off their first loss of the year, a semi-final setback to the Guy-Perkins T-Birds, by oddly enough, the exact same score of 61-48 that the Bearkatz were handed by Bergman.
In the consolation game, Melbourne jumped out to an early lead, survived a shaky start to the third period before regrouping, and then hit the jets to post a 20-point win over the always-tough Rebels from Rural Special.
Melbourne got out of the gates quickly by posting a 20-8 lead in the first period. The Bearkatz closed the frame on a 8-2 run to keep the Rebels in their rear-view mirror.
The second period was a study of contrasts as Rural Special bombed away from outside, while the Bearkatz pounded the ball on the low blocks to Taylor.
With the Rebels draining some shots from beyond the arc, Taylor kept Melbourne in front by logging all 11 of the Bearkatz' points in the second period. Taylor led the Bearkatz with a game-high 19 points, all coming in the first half of play.
Leading 31-24 at halftime, things got dicey for Melbourne early in the third period.
Rural Special opened the frame with five straight points to chop into Melbourne's lead, 31-29.
Because Taylor picked up his fourth foul early and was taken out of the mix for most of the period, the Bearkatz were forced to alter their attack a bit.
Alter it they did, peeling off a 15-3 run in the third behind the Davidson brothers.
Nick (17 points) hit a long 3-pointer to go with a pair of free throws and a layup, while Jordan (12 points) canned a jumper. Andy Miller and Matt Wheely each kicked in with an inside hoop, and just like that, the Bearkatz extended their lead to 46-32.
"I thought we where playing well up to the start of the third," Watson said. "Levi was the best player on any team there last week, and when he had to sit out with foul trouble, it was up to our bench. And they responded. We got some easy baskets and pushed the ball late in the third. Our guards took over, and Matt Wheely and Kyle Nixon played well for us."
After warming up from downtown in the second period, the Rebels' outside touch quickly left them as they struggled behind the arc in the last two frames of the game.
Cody Moser (eight points) knocked in a couple of timely hoops in the fourth period, and Melbourne shot eight-for-11 from the charity stripe in the frame, to bounce back from their first setback of the season.
"It's a good opportunity for us to play in a tournament like that with teams of that caliber," Watson said. "It's kind of tough to face competition like that right after the Christmas break. I felt like that last year when we won it. You'd like to be on a roll going into a situation with so many good teams, but I'm sure all the teams in the tournament feel that way, so we're all in the same boat."