While the Izard County Consolidated Cougars may not have earned a trip to the Class AA State Tournament in Jessieville, it certainly wasn't because of a lack of effort. Or for that matter, a lack of blood, sweat and tears.
After battling the Cave City Cavemen tooth-and-nail for four periods in the semifinals of the Class AA Region 3 Tournament on their home court in Brockwell Feb. 24, the Cougars barely had enough energy to make their way back to their locker room after leaving their hearts and souls on the court at the Cougars' Den.
ICC's James Morgan left even more than that behind after Cave City's thrilling 52-51 victory. He exited the court minus one tooth, while saddled with a case of blurred vision from a poke in the face incurred in the fierce battle to the finish.
With Cave City (28-7) in control of a 52-51 lead and possession of the ball with 25 ticks left in the game, the Cavemen committed a costly turnover, giving the ball to the homestanding Cougars (24-14).
ICC called a timeout to set up a play, and upon inbounding the ball near halftcourt, worked the basketball inside the paint.
The Cougars lost control of the ball as time wound off the clock, but the ball bounced off a Cave City player near the hoop into the hands of ICC's Joey Stefka. Stefka cut loose with a desperation 17-foot fallaway jumper that came up just short as the horn sounded, leaving Cave City with a hard-fought one-point win and trip to Jessieville.
The wheels to these amazing last seconds were set in motion in the third period.
After holding a 29-22 lead at the halftime break, the Cougars padded their margin by blasting out of the starting gates on a mission in the third.
Morgan popped a jumper to start the frame, followed by one from Stefka. Morgan paced ICC with 16 points, with Stefka adding 14. Both were selected to the All-Regional squad along with teammate Kyle McCandlis.
Morgan than cut to the hoop for a layup that pushed the Cougs on top 35-22 at the 5:08 point of the third.
Still stoked, the Cougars moved on top 39-24, their biggest lead of the game, before Cave City realized its season was slipping away.
The Cavemen then posted the next 12 points of the game, stunning the Cougars by pulling within three, 39-36, after three.
Brandon West (13 points) logged four points during this Cave City burst, while Justin Barr (10 points), who had been held scoreless until deep in the third, chipped in with four points of his own during this big Caveman run.
Dilon Willmuth (eight points) kept Cave City in positive traction by racking up a jumper to open the final period with his team down by just one, after trailing by 15 just minutes earlier.
McCandlis (10 points) halted Cave City's run with a huge triple that kept the Cavemen from overtaking the Cougars. ICC, which had ridden a hot-shooting streak all the way to the 2AA-North District Tournament title, continued this trend in the regional semis by missing just 10 of its 31 shots from the floor against Cave City.
The Cavemen kept chipping away, however, and they finally did jump in front of ICC, 52-49, thanks to back-to-back hoops by Barr with under a minute left in the game. Tournament MVP Jordan Smith (12 points) played a big role in Cave City's fourth-period positioning by racking up six critical points in the last five minutes of the game.
The first 16 minutes of the game was equally tight as the last few seconds of the game turned out to be, as would be expected from two teams playing their best ball of the season.
The contest was tied twice in the first period before ICC moved ahead 8-7 at the 2:45 mark.
Smith went on a 3-0 run to end the period for Cave City, staking the Cavemen to a 10-8 lead heading into the second stanza.
The Cougars opened up a bit of distance between themselves and the Cavemen late in the second with a 7-3 run that gave ICC a 29-22 lead at the half.
The Cougars extended this advantage to 15 points in the third before Cave City staged an incredible comeback to leave ICC stunned, one stop short of a state tournament berth.
Curtis Clark finished with four points for the Cougars, with Adam Montgomery and Scott Small posting three points each.
Jonathan Hunter posted four points for Cave City, while Dustin Davidson and Jonathan Fowler had two points each. Jared Harris ended the night with one point for the Cavemen.