The road to the state finals is a grueling marathon that starts with two to three games each in the district and regional tournaments before getting a chance to play in the five-day state tourney.
It's still grueling even when the tournament is hosted in the brand new Melbourne arena, and the players get to sleep in their own beds and the crowd is heavily in their favor.
The other teams don't play any less hard just because you've been a gracious host, or because the locker rooms are new and shiny, or because the Bearkatz students perform that cute little roller coaster cheer that really turns on the crowd.
The Hackett Hornets played Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, while the Melbourne Bearkatz played Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Given that the Hornets travelled from the Oklahoma line south of Ft. Smith, it safe to say both teams were leg weary during the semi-final event on Mar. 14.
The had Bearkatz survived a 58-56 battle against Abundant Life the night before, Mar. 13, only to find themselves in overtime against the Hornets.
One seed vs. one seed.
That's the state tournament for you.
Melbourne dominated the overtime 50-44 to win a trip to Hot Springs to face Conway St. Joseph, another one seed, on Mar. 20 at 7 p.m.
The Katz dispatched first-round opponent Hector, 62-43, on Mar. 11.
The trip to Hot Springs will mean a lot to the entire Bearkatz community, but maybe the most to Melbourne Head Coach Mike Watson, whose father coached Melbourne's only state basketball championship team.
The Bearkatz' girl's team won the overall championship in 1973.
"I got to the semi-finals in 2001, 2003 and 2004. That was a once-in-a-lifetime crew, I thought, that passed through here. And I thought, I'll never get to go," explained Watson. "But man, I wanted to go to the state finals in basketball for the community, for my dad. I just wanted to do it while he's still with me."
To get to go, Melbourne had to get past a feisty Hornet team that beat Buffalo Island Central 63-52 on Mar. 10 and Hampton 68-56 on Mar. 12, relying on Logan Emery in the front court and Blake Branham and Tommy Wilson in the back court.
There were three lead changes and two ties in the first quarter, but a bucket by Wilson and a trey by Ryan Rogers gave Hackett the 12-7 early advantage.
"They did a great job on Spencer. He's the first guy you've got to stop. If we get him going three feet from the bucket, he's hard to deal with," said Watson. "They did a great job defensively on us. They took away what we like to do. They forced us to shoot jumpers and contested layups."
"We stress defense. We are not going to out talent anybody," said Hackett Head Coach Tim Branham. "In order to be successful in the state tournament you've got to be able to play a little defense."
The Katz owned the second quarter, starting with an 8-0 run, finishing up 23-19.
An 8-2 run for the Hornets at the beginning of the third and a Melbourne shooting slump helped Hackett end with a 9-3 run for a 36-30 lead looked to spell doom for the hometown team.
Like boxing in the late rounds, both teams struggled to control their shots, taking a couple minutes before either scored in the fourth quarter. The Bearkatz regained the lead 39-38 with 2:20 on the clock when Lee Lewis hit a 3-pointer.
Branham took the lead back with a bucket on the next possession and Chase Massey did like-wise for Melbourne.
With only two second half team fouls apiece to start the period, Hackett had to foul four times before finally sending Spencer Caraway to the line with less than a minute to play.
Caraway missed the first and sank the second to extend the lead to 42-40.
Wilson tied the game for Hackett.
Hornet Jesse Williams fouled Lewis with 25 seconds left. Lewis missed the front end of the one-and-one to give Hackett one last chance.
With fouls to give, Massey and Derek Baird fouled to slow the Hornets down.
Emery got off a last second shot that narrowly missed its target and forced overtime.
In overtime, Melbourne could do no wrong.
Lewis hit an early bucket and Massey went six of six from the line.
Emery hit two free throws for Hackett while Wilson missed his two.
The Hornets only had five free throw attempts in the entire game.
"We didn't do a lot of pounding inside tonight. I don't know if that was Melbourne's good defense or our lack of offense. But certainly we would like to shoot more free throws," said Branham.
Massey and Lewis led the team with 16 points each followed by Caraway 14. Branham and Wilson shot 12 apiece and Emery scored 10.
The Bearkatz were on their way to an easy win against Abundant Life when they shocked the Owls with a 13-8 first quarter and a 17-7 second quarter for a 15 point lead.
However, Abundant Life remembered that the game has two halves and decided to make the most of the second.
"Home court advantage usually gives you 10 points. I'm not sure this doesn't give them about 20 points. As much as I tried to prepare for it, we may have just been a little bit shell shocked early," remarked Owls Head Coach Tim Ballard. "I challenged them. There's a lot of time left. (Melbourne) came down from 21 on us earlier in the year (at the Buffalo Island Central tourney). We can come down from 15 on them. What we'll do is just speed up the game, get a lot of possessions and hope there's enough possessions to make it all the way back."
And they did just that.
They sped up the game and they trapped the Bearkatz. They managed four steals in the 17-11 third quarter to cut the Katz lead to 41-32.
"I said, 'you know it's not over' and they said, 'we know.' It's kind of a sense of dread. I hated the way we let them come back," said Watson. "They put their half-court trap on us and we didn't execute at all. I had some kids show some nerves for the first time. Chase and Spencer showed some iron will and took the ball in their hands and just made it happen for us and won the ball game for us."
The Owls finished the third on a 5-0 run and started the fourth with a 10-0 run to take their first lead of the game at the six-minute mark.
Massey answered with two free throws and a layup to steal the momentum away from Abundant Life.
"I messed it up. I made a bad coaching decision. We went into the 1-3-1 instead of my trap and they got a layup right away," explained Ballard. "It took the wind out of my kids' sails. I'm afraid the easy score we gave them really took the wind out of my guys."
Watson saw the defensive change a little differently.
"He did and I was thankful. He got out of his trap that had been so successful for him. You've got to make a thousand decisions in the snap of a finger," said Watson. "Tim did what he thought was best. I'm not going to say it was a mistake. We just made plays. I don't think it was Tim's fault any more than us winning was me. I think it was great players making great plays."
Caraway scored 34 for the Bearkatz and Massey had 17. Dante Lottner put in 14 and Garret Southerland and George Herring had 11 each for the Owls, who lost to Rose Bud in last year's 3-A semi-final game at Cave City.
Against Hector, Melbourne used a 20-10 first and a 13-6 second to cruise to the win.
Caraway led the team with 23, while Lewis had 16 and Massey 15.