Cougars Fall to Rebels Despite Hot Start

Thursday, February 26, 2015
Danny Hager of Rector puts up a running jumper during the Cougars' game against Riverside in the 2A-3 district tournament in Lepanto. * (TD Photo/Anthony Cossey)

Despite a torrid start in the contest, the Rector Cougars couldn't hang on in their upset bid against Riverside Thursday afternoon in Lepanto in the first round of the District 2A-3 Tournament.

Riverside won the game, 47-44, and advanced to the quarterfinal round against BIC. The Rebels lost to the Mustangs, who rolled to the tournament title with a win Monday night over Earle.

Rector broke out to an 8-2 lead behind a pair of three-pointers by Landen Crancer and a basket by Lawson Ford and maintained a strong margin throughout the first half.

The capper came when Chito Martinez nailed a long three-pointer at the first-half buzzer to put the Cougars up 26-16 heading into the halftime break.

Rector had five three-pointers in the first half, 10 for the game.

The relatively-comfortable lead for the Cougars evaporated in a crucial stretch at the start of the third quarter. The Rebels came out on fire and scored the first 10 points of the frame to tie it at 26. Three-pointers by Brandon Sain and Brett Snyder were a key to the surge.

Nick Hardin finally broke the drought for Rector by hitting a free throw at the 2:27 mark of the third quarter.

The two teams battled neck-and-neck for the remainder of the third quarter with another trey by Crancer tying it at one point and a long three-pointer by Ford giving his team a 33-32 lead at the buzzer.

Following a pair of free throws by Sain, Mason McCluskey hit a basket and Ford added a trey to give the Cougars a 38-34 margin with just over five minutes remaining in the game.

Sain countered with a three-point play and Crancer hit another three-pointer for Rector to make it 41-37. But consecutive three-pointers by Sain and Gavin Stone gave the Rebels a lead they never relinquished.

Stone added two free throws at the 1:02 mark to make it 45-41, but Crancer hit his fifth trey of the game with 47.9 seconds left to close it to 45-44.

Following two more free throws by Stone, the Cougars had a chance to tie it. But a three-pointer was partially blocked and a desperation shot at the buzzer was no good.

"Them erasing that 10-point deficit in the third period was the key," coach Matt Mills said. "We clearly won the first and second quarters and both teams played well in the fourth, so the third was the one that really hurt."

Mills pointed out his team had three turnovers on their first four possessions in the third quarter and also missed several shots.

"In a close game like this between two evenly-matched teams, it comes down to breaks at the end and we just couldn't get anything to go our way."

Crancer led Rector with 15 points and Ford joined him in double figures with 11. Also scoring were McCluskey 5, Danny Hager 5, Martinez 3, Hardin 3 and Garrett Buck 2.

Sain led Riverside with 16 while Snyder and Luke Baker had eight each. Stone scored all seven of his points in the final quarter.

The game was won at the free throw line. Riverside went 14-16, while Rector went to the charity stripe only six times, hitting two.

"If you had told me we would make 10 three-pointers and hold Kollin Stone scoreless, I would have thought we'd win by 15," Mills said.

"I thought this was one of our best defensive games," the coach added. "They did everything I asked them to do. They just couldn't have done more effort-wise. Riverside made some really tough shots down the stretch."

Rector had four seniors on the team -- Crancer, Hardin, McCluskey and Skyler Shockley.

"Our seniors were kind of the cornerstone of our team. They set the tone, worked hard and were always accountable. They did what seniors are supposed to do."

Looking ahead to next year, Mills is pleased that six players with significant playing time are returning and a player who was injured, Easton Tracy, no doubt also will figure into the mix.

"We'll be as good next year as we want to be," the coach said. Mills believes his two post players, Huston Highfill and Chase Jackson, will be much more productive next year. "I think we'll be pretty good," he said.

The Cougars finished the season 12-14, but lost three games by one point.

Despite the sub-.500 record, Mills said, "I was really pleased with this team...I never had to ask them twice to do anything. As far as effort, they deserved to be in the regional tournament and I was hoping maybe we could sneak into the state. We put ourselves in good position to do that and that is all I could ask.

"This is the hardest-working group of kids I've had since I've been here. They are exciting to watch, energetic and the kids just made it fun for me."

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