Cougars Fall in NEA Semifinals
The Rector Cougars narrowly missed advancing to the Boys Division I championship game in the NEA Tournament, falling in semifinal play to the Marked Tree Indians, 54-47, Saturday at the ASU Convocation Center in Jonesboro.
The contest was considered one of the tournament's highlights, with both teams battling in an ultra-competitive game. Rector managed to maintain a small lead, hovering in the four to five-point range much of the second and third quarters, to go into the final frame with a 39-34 lead.
The Indians opened the fourth as the aggressor, sparking a 10-0 run over the first three minutes of the period to claim a 44-39 advantage. The Indians scored twice on offensive rebounds and added two more buckets off Cougar turnovers in the run. Allen Buchanan was the fuel for the Marked Tree fire, scoring six points during the key stretch.
Rector wouldn't go quietly, though. Sophomore Nick Hardin drove into the lane, then kicked the ball out to junior Reed Weber for a critical three-pointer from the right wing with 4:55 remaining. Senior Dillon Shelton made it a one-point game, 44-43, sinking one of two at the line upon drawing a foul with a drive to the hoop with 2:18 left.
The Indians' Chris Montague broke loose in the half-court set, getting wide open underneath to make it 46-43 in favor of Marked Tree. Rector missed the front end of a one-in-one and the Indians responded with disastrous results: Darius Ivy sped down the court for a Marked Tree layup. Ivy then stole the ball on the inbound, adding two free throws to put the Indians in front, 50-43, with 1:28 remaining.
Shelton sank two at the stripe to bring Rector within five, 50-45, with 1:22 left in the game. Ivy made the first of two attempts at the stripe for Marked Tree, with Mitchell Weber rebounding the ball for the Cougars and hitting Daniel White with the pass in transition. White soared in for the layup with 48 seconds left to play, bringing Rector within four points, trailing 51-47.
Marked Tree's Terry Carter made two free throws with 33 seconds, and the Indians added another free throw after a turnover and foul by the Cougars with 28 seconds left to play. Mitchell Weber was hit with a controversial charging call on his way to the basket on Rector's final play of the game, allowing the Indians to dribble out the clock.
Turnovers hurt the Cougars on the night. Rector gave up possession 17 times against the Indians, something coach Matt Mills did not want to see from his squad.
"When you play a state tournament team, and Marked Tree is a state tournament team, you can't turn the ball over that many times," Mills said. "I felt like we had a couple of opportunities to take control of the game that we didn't take advantage of. We let them stay close and they went on that run to start the fourth quarter and we just didn't have an answer. We've got to be tougher than that."
The squads were tied at 13-13 after the first quarter. Rector led 25-21 at halftime.
Mitchell Weber paced the Cougars with 16 points on the night. White and Reed Weber also reached double figures in scoring, adding 11 and 10 points, respectively. Also scoring for Rector were Shelton 5, Hardin 3 and Alec Scott 2.
Buchanan led Marked Tree with 22 points. Daniel Rucker added 10 for the Indians, who advanced to the tourney finals to meet Bay Monday.
The Cougars, who reached the second round via bye as the number two seed, advanced to the semifinals with a 58-36 shellacking of Crowley's Ridge Academy Dec. 21.
Rector was just too much for CRA to handle in the contest, with the boys in blue powering to a 29-10 advantage through the first quarter. White and Shelton buried two three-pointers each in the opening frame, while on defense the Cougars kept a hand in CRA's face every time the Falcons readied for a shot. Rector also was the first to 50/50 balls and rebounds, setting the stage for the one-sided victory early.
The Cougars kept CRA scoreless in the second frame, further building their advantage. Mitchell Weber hit a spinning floater from the right block in the first minute of the frame in addition to a pull-up jumper and a pair of free throws. Shelton drew contact on a layup for a three-point play and added one more at the line with barely a minute before intermission. White scored four points in the final 31 seconds of the half, burying a triple and making one of two from the line. Rector led 43-10 going into the second half.
"Everything came together for us," Mills said of the win. "That's probably the best overall game we've played all year. We played real well defensively, and managed the game well on offense."
The clock didn't stop most of the second half, with the Cougars relying on their bench for much of the third quarter and the entirety of the fourth. Rector led 56-23 through three quarters of action.
Shelton set the pace with 17 points in the win. Mitchell Weber notched 13 points. White finished with 10 in the win. Also scoring for the Cougars were Alec Scott 8, Tyler Carter 6, Jake Scott 2 and Nick Hardin finished with 2.
Luke Ellis led CRA with eight points.
The Cougars are set to meet up with Marked Tree again after the holidays. Rector is scheduled to host the Indians beginning at 6 p.m. Jan. 8 The Cougars will visit Augusta beginning at 6 p.m. Jan. 11. The return schedule will see conference 2A-3 action picking up with each game becoming more critical as teams jockey for postseason positioning.
"We've got to come out and make that run like we've made the past few years," Mills said. "We've got to come back and be ready to go, because everyone else will be. There's no reason we can't make that same run that we've made in the past."