In the battle of speed and quickness versus height and strength between Mount Pleasant and Melbourne, the former lies squarely on the side of the Lady Bluebirds, while the former is certainly a strong suit of the Lady Bearkatz.
Thus the stage was set for a battle that would send one team to the Class 1A State Tournament in Clinton, while the other team would see its season end in the third-place game of the 1A Region 2 Tournament Feb. 24 at the Cougars' Den in Brockwell.
And in the end, it was the Lady Bluebirds (27-8) that would earn a trip to the state tournament, their first since 2001, with a 54-41 victory over Melbourne.
Helping tip the scales a bit in favor of the Lady Bluebirds was an ankle injury that kept Melbourne's dynamic wing player, Olivia Morris, on the bench and out of action in the Lady Katz' semi-final loss to Calico Rock the night before. While Morris gutted it out in the third-place game against Mount Pleasant, she was obviously hobbled and posted just six points, far less than her usual double-figure output.
But as usually is the case when these rivals hook up, the outcome is never easily decided.
Protecting a fragile three-point lead, 36-33, after three periods of play, the Lady Bluebirds closed the book on the Lady Bearkatz with a strong showing at the charity stripe late in the game, although it looked for a bit like free throws might be Mount Pleasant's undoing instead of becoming an ally.
Mount Pleasant held a 45-39 lead with two minutes left in the game, but the Lady Bluebirds missed the front end of two straight one-and-ones to keep Melbourne's hopes alive.
The Lady Bluebirds did knock down a pair from the line before Abby Cooper (four points) hit a layup for the Lady Katz.
Turns out that Cooper's hoop was Melbourne's last of the game, as free throws by Amelia Bray took center stage for Mount Pleasant.
Bray went a sparkling seven-for-eight from the charity stripe in the last minute-plus of action to help Mount Pleasant claim the victory. Bray paced the Lady Bluebirds with a game-high 21 points.
Melbourne held a brief 2-0 lead, the only time it would lead on the afternoon, thanks to two free throws by Holly Miller to open the game.
The Lady Bluebirds quickly grabbed the lead at 6-2 on two inside hoops by Bray, aided with a layup from Ariane Qualls (19 points).
The Lady Bearkatz heated up a touch from beyond the arc late in the first, with Autumn Henry (10 points) and Codi Womack (five points) drilling triples to keep Melbourne close.
Erica Biard (nine points) hit a layup to send the teams to the second period with Mount Pleasant on top 12-8.
Melbourne managed to pull even twice in the second, as Tori Rush had a big outing in the frame by canning all six of her points for the game in the stanza.
With a baseline bucket from Rush teamed with a 3-ball from Henry, Melbourne knotted the game at 17-all at the 4:44 mark of the second.
A jumper by Rush then locked things at 19-all a minute later, but the Lady Bluebirds would have the final say in the first half with a triple from Maggie Caraway and layup by Lacy Rush that pushed Mount Pleasant in front 24-21 at intermission.
This three-point advantage quickly turned into the Lady Bluebirds' largest margin as Bray hit a layup and Qualls jacked her second triple of the night, staking Mount Pleasant to a 29-21 on the opening two hoops of the third period.
Melbourne kept plugging away and got a big spark off the bench from freshman Amanda Treat in the third.
Fresh off the junior Lady Bearkatz' untouched run through the conference ranks, along with the junior high district tournament title, Treat stepped up in a big way and fired in eight points in the third, including a long trey to go with an old-fashioned 3-point play.
However, Mount Pleasant refused to give much ground and a layup from Qualls gave the Lady Bluebirds a three-point lead at the end of three, using seven big free throws from Bray late in the final frame to hold on for a spot in the state tournament.
Bray and Biard earned spots on the All-Regional Tournament squad for Mount Pleasant, while Morris, Cooper and Henry played their way to All-Tournament honors for the Lady Bearkatz.
In the semi-final round Feb. 23, a quick start and fast finish by the Lady Bluebirds could not make up for a sluggish third period in a 50-47 loss to the Norfork Lady Panthers.
Mount Pleasant started the afternoon on solid footing, jumping out to a 13-6 lead after the first frame, paced by six points in the period from Bray (12 points).
The Lady Bluebirds continued to bring the heat in the second, extending their lead to 20-9 with 4:40 left until the half.
Norfork didn't record its first field goal of the period until the 3:50 mark, but the Lady Panthers made up for lost ground by ending the half on a 10-2 run that drew Norfork within four, 24-20, at intermission.
Then things got completely out of control for Mount Pleasant in the third.
Caraway (14 points) knocked in the first five points of the third for the Lady Bluebirds with a deuce and a triple, but then the well ran dry for Mount Pleasant.
Norfork reeled off the next 12 points of the afternoon to grab its first lead of the game.
And despite a late charge by the Lady Bluebirds, Norfork managed to ride this lead all the way to a three-point win over Mount Pleasant.