The Viola Longhorns (23-12), bid a fond farewell to regional play in the Class A ranks by beating old foe Norfork 46-42 in the finals of the Class A Region 2 Tournament at Rural Special High School in Fox Feb. 28.
Not only are the Longhorns saying goodbye to Class A after this year, the Panthers from Norfork will be joining Viola as they slide up a notch to Class AA competition next year.
Before doing so, both squads will take part in this week's Class A State Tournament in Lynn.
Meeting for the fourth time this year, with the Panthers winning both regular-season matchups before dropping a semi-final loss to Viola in the district tourney, these two units were as familiar with each other as they are with the backs of their own hands.
That being the case, it's no surprise that Norfork wanted to do whatever it took to keep Dustin "Big Country" Jones from dominating the game.
The Panthers attacked this problem by pulling whoever Jones was guarding out of the paint, at times positioning them just feet away from the half-court line in an effort to free the lane of Jones' presence.
While this might have worked to a certain degree, Jones still had the last laugh, tossing in a game-high 18 points to go along with 18 rebounds and his usual complement of blocked shots, and walking away with Regional MVP honors for the Longhorns, currently ranked number 10 in Class A hoops.
"We go as he (Jones) goes," said Longhorn Head Coach Jeremy Lewis. "When he plays well, it really helps us out."
Trading their normal up-and-down pace for a more deliberate one, the Panthers climbed on top early in the first period.
Brett Cotter (seven points), an All-Regional performer, kept Viola close by busting a pair of first-period treys, though the Horns trailed 11-9 after one.
Jones tossed in eight of the Longhorns' 10 points in the second period, giving Viola a 19-17 lead at the half.
This low-scoring trend continued into the second half of play, with both teams racking up fouls like they were going out of style.
Four of Viola's starters had tallied four fouls each at game's end, with the Panthers having one player foul out, while five others were saddled with four fouls each.
The Longhorns pulled in front by five points in the third, their biggest lead of the game, before Norfork closed in.
Four points in the frame from All-Regional Team member Cody Hutson (six points) and a layup by Dustin Shrable (four points) saw Viola on top 28-24.
"Everybody that played in the tournament for us really stepped it up," Lewis said. "It was very much a total-team effort."
The Panthers ended the period on a 5-zip run to take a 29-28 lead going into the final period.
Despite a poor showing from the charity stripe late in the game, and a big period from Norfork's Jason Haught, the Longhorns held on for the victory.
Haught scored 11 of the Panthers' last 13 points of the contest, while Viola missed five free throws inside the game's final minute, but still took the regional title with a four-point win.
Kevin Painter finished with five points for Viola, while Ryan Walker added two, and Justin Richardson one.
"Justin did a good job of handling the ball for us, and that 3-pointer that Painter hit early in the fourth really gave us some momentum."
In opening round play, it looked like the Longhorns' matchup with the Concord Pirates Feb. 26 would be determined by who had the ball last.
As a matter of fact, that's exactly what happened.
Viola got two huge buckets from Hutson, and one big defensive stop from "Big Country," as the Longhorns knocked off a scrappy bunch of Pirates in a thrilling 45-43 contest.
With Concord (25-9) in front 43-40 inside of a minute to play in the fourth period, Hutson took an inbounds pass and drained a trey from the left corner to deadlock the game at 43-all with 52 ticks on the clock.
Moving downcourt quickly, Concord pushed the ball inside the lane and Levi Spinks curled around a screen and headed for a baseline layup.
Much to Concord's dismay, Jones, not bothered by the fact he was saddled with four fouls, was waiting in the paint and he swatted Spinks' attempt harmlessly away, setting up the Longhorns with the game's final shot.
Working time off the clock at the top of the key, Cotter handed the ball off to Hutson who drove through the teeth of the Pirates' defense to lay the ball off the glass as time expired, giving the Longhorns a last-second victory.
Hutson and Cotter tossed in 14 points apiece to pace the Viola win.
"Cody came through in a big way for us, scoring five points in the last minute of the game, including the winning shot," Lewis said. "And Brett hit some big-time shots when we needed them."
The game was nip-and-tuck throughout, with neither side able to open up much breathing room in the form of a big lead.
Tied at 11-all after the first period, the Pirates hit back-to-back triples to open the second frame and grab a 17-13 lead.
The Longhorns closed the first half on a 6-2 run, good enough to put them on top 21-20 at intermission.
Viola kept the margin on their side for most of the third period, and six unanswered Longhorn points saw Viola with a slim 35-32 lead heading into the stretch run.
Hit with a bout of sluggishness at the worst possible time, the Longhorns saw Concord regain the advantage with a 7-zip burst to begin the frame.
It would be almost four minutes into the period before the Longhorns posted any points, but what big points they were.
Down 39-35, Hutson canned a jumper to get the Longhorns going, and Cotter busted his third trey of the game to give Viola a one-point lead.
As it turned out, finishing the frame strong was better than starting it fast, as Hutson hit the game's last bucket to keep Viola on top of the final score.
Jones tallied 12 points for the Longhorns, while Richardson added four, and Painter one.