With all the electricity and excitement surrounding the Alton Comets' Feb. 2 matchup with the East Carter Redbirds, it was hard to tell if the game was actually played in Alton, or if was played at the Hearnes Center in Columbia.
After all, East Carter (15-3), currently ranked number three in Class 2 hoops, is the defending state champion with all starters from last season intact, while the Comets (16-1) are riding a lengthy winning streak and are looking to make their move up the Class 2 ranks themselves.
The game was in fact played in Alton, and the Comets showed just why they should be a dangerous out in this year's post-season by knocking off the Redbirds 68-63 in thrilling fashion.
"We knew that they're the defending state champs and ranked third in the state now. We wanted to play just because of that," said Comet Head Coach Norman Hollis. "But they've beaten us the past couple of times, so I think that was part of the reason for the intensity. We respect East Carter's program and the game definitely had a post-season feel."
The game was a classic contrast of two different halfs; a close first one, before the Comets turned on the jets and dominated the second one.
Up by as many as 14 points in the third period, the Comets prevailed despite posting just one field goal in the game's final eight minutes.
No problem. Alex Wiggs tossed in six points from the charity stripe, to go along with three from Kyle Willard as Alton staved off an East Carter comeback.
The dynamic duo of Wiggs (21 points) and Willard (19 points) accounted for 40 of Alton's 68 points for the game.
The Comets hopped out to a 6-0 lead in the first period before the Redbirds fought back to take a 20-17 lead late in the frame.
A 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded by Alton's Clinton Hand (10 points) locked the game at 20-all after one, setting the tone for the second period.
East Carter's big gun, David Reynolds, was shackled with four fouls early in the period, rendering him helpless on the bench while the two squads battled it out.
With the Redbirds up 28-24, Max Wilkerson (five points) completed an old-fashioned 3-point play and Wiggs sank a layup to move Alton back on top 29-28.
The see-saw period ended as Lyndon Ollar tossed in a pair of free throws to stake the Comets to a 37-35 halftime advantage.
The third period turned out to be the decisive one as Alton exploded out of the halftime locker room, knocking East Carter backwards with a defensive surge.
"We have to play good team defense, with everyone hustling," Hollis said. "Our defense has gotten better since the first of the year. We've had to work hard at it, and we still have some work to do."
Wiggs got things going with a pair of steals to keep East Carter on its heels. Willard dropped in a layup and free throw. Greg Campbell (six points) sank a floater in the lane.
By the time Bryan Joiner (four points) stuck back a missed shot, the Comets had hit the Redbirds with an 8-zip run to move out to a 45-35 lead.
Wiggs finished off the frame with a pair of layups to give Alton a 56-42 lead after three, having outscored East Carter 19-7 in the third.
The Redbirds were far from done as they made a charge at Alton's margin in the fourth.
East Carter nailed three treys in the last period, getting within four, 65-61, with 27 ticks left on the clock.
This proved to be as close as the Redbirds would get as Willard sank three free throws under the 20-second mark to preserve Alton's victory.
"They've (East Carter) got a lot of weapons. They've got five kids that can shoot the 3, and five that can score around the basket," Hollis said. "I thought the keys for us in the fourth period was to hit free throws, and to take care of the defensive backboards. We did those two things and came away with a win."