As much as they tried in the early going, the Viola Longhorns just couldn't keep the Izard County Consolidated Cougars from turning the championship game of the 1A Region 2 Tournament into an up-tempo, run-and-gun affair.
By the time the Horns did manage to ease the pace to something that more suited their patient style, they were in too big a hole to climb out of, as the Cougars claimed the regional tourney title with a 54-37 victory over Viola Feb. 24 at the Cougars' Den in Brockwell.
Both teams earned tickets to this week's Class 1A State Tournament in Clinton, with ICC making the state tourney for the first time since 1999, while the Longhorns are back in the hunt for a state crown after sitting out the last two state tournaments.
ICC (29-11) wasted little time in finding its flow in the open court, running out to a 32-15 lead at the half.
But the Cougars left the door open for a Viola (24-9) comeback in the third period, as the tempo slowed and free throws took over. Instead of salting the game away from the charity stripe, the Cougars struggled, shooting five-of-13 from the free throw line in the third.
While ICC's problems from the stripe helped Viola's cause, the Horns were handicapped as they fought their way back thanks to Lucas Rains' absence on the floor, as he was whistled for two fouls in a 10-second span in the frame, forcing him to grab a seat on the bench at the 5:24 mark of the third.
Although they logged just one field goal and only scored seven points in the third, the Cougars still managed to take a 39-22 lead into the fourth period.
The Longhorns opened the final frame on an 8-2 run, pulling within 11, 41-30, but that would be as close as Viola could get, with the Cougars finally finding their stride at the free throw line, going 11-for-14 down the stretch to post a 54-37 victory.
Rains (10 points) opened the game with a bucket for Viola, then it was all ICC the remainder of the first period.
Kyle McCandlis (10 points) knocked down three triples in the first, including back-to-back numbers at the 3:16 mark, helping ICC to get wheeling and dealing.
While the Horns found just one hoop and three free throws in the first, Dustin Noblin closed the book on the frame with a trey at the buzzer, giving ICC a 16-5 lead after one.
Kasey Humphries hit a trey for Viola early in the second, but ICC countered with back-to-back buckets by Spencer Caraway (nine points) and Scott Small to maintain the advantage.
Then Joey Stefka (13 points), the Regional MVP, got going, scoring six points late in the second for the Cougars.
Matt Bynum (10 points) hit the last four points of the second period for the Horns, but Viola still trailed 32-15 at intermission.
Although the Longhorns did manage to get things slowed up in the third, it was the Cougars who managed to come out on top, winning the regional title with a 54-37 win.
Adam Montgomery finished with seven points for ICC, while Curtis Clark added six, and Zac DeSanto four.
Jeremiah Johnson logged nine points for Viola, with Austin Springfield posting three, and Casey Comstock two.
In addition to Stefka's Regional MVP honors, McCandlis, Small and Caraway all earned a spot on the All-Regional Tournament team.
Rains, Humphries and Johnson were named to the All-Tournament squad for Viola.
The Cougars wasted little time or effort in sending the Oak Ridge Central Roadrunners home with a 72-45 loss Feb. 21 in quarter-final action.
McCandlis tallied 13 points for ICC, with DeSanto adding 11, and Stefka 10. Caraway finished with nine, Small eight, and Noblin six. Ethan Porter logged five, while Clark and Brad Haney hit for four points each. Gerrick Smith notched two points for the Cougars.
The Horns jumped out to an early lead en route to a 50-40 win over Norfork, the fourth-seeded team from the 1A-2 South Conference Feb. 21.
Viola went on an 11-0 run in the first period, fueled by a pair of treys from Humphries (13 points) to grab a 17-6 lead after one.
Another run, this one an 8-0 blast in the second, helped the Longhorns out in front 27-10 at the half.
Johnson tallied 15 points for the Longhorns, while Rains added 10, Springfield six, Jesse Shrable four, and Comstock two.