Cougar Season Ends at Home in Regional Play
The 2A-3 district tournament champion Rector Cougars ended their season in a familiar location Wednesday, falling in the first round of the 2A-North Regional Basketball Tournament at RHS. After leading East Poinsett County throughout the game, the Warriors scored the game winner with just seconds to play on a forced turnover.
Playing in a regional which included some of the top 2A teams in the state, the Cougar's high seed meant little as they took on fourth place EPC from 2A-6. The Warriors had emerged from a district which included defending state champion Marked Tree, runner-ups Earle and highly ranked Clarendon.
Playing with high energy and a sense of urgency, the Rector squad jumped to an early lead behind the inside game of Kale Hardin and Max Ford and the outside shooting of Adam Romine. The three combined for all of the points in the quarter as the boys in blue enjoyed a 15-11 lead after the first.
Trey Rodden responded with five in the second, and the Rector squad stepped-up the defensive effort, as the Cougars took the frame 13-11 to take a 28-22 lead into the locker room at the break.
The Warriors' Jonathan Gilmore took over in the third, scoring 10 of his game high 25 in the frame as EPC cut the Cougar lead to 41-39 going into the fourth quarter. As the game began to wind-down the Warriors made several runs, with the Cougars able to respond each time.
Cutting the lead to as little as one point late in the game, the Warriors continued to battle to stay in the contest thanks to a big second half by Gilmore. But, each time the Cougars got key baskets and free throws as they maintained the advantage.
With under a minute to play Evan Dooley hit a basket to give the Rector squad a 54-51 lead. Moments later Gilmore answered at the other end to cut it to a one point advantage, 54-53 with just seconds to play. On the ensuing in-bounds Romine was fouled, and the Cougars called timeout with under 10 seconds to play in regulation.
Setting up the inbound play from the opposite sideline, Romine got the nod and was covered by EPC big man Peston Baines. Trying to avoid a five second call, Romine jumped to inbound the ball but it was tipped and caught by Baines. He fired the ball to Tysean Garrett for a layup with just seconds to play, giving the Warriors the 55-54 win on Gerrett's only basket of the ball game.
“On a situation like that you replay it over in your head a thousand times,” Cougar Head Coach Matt Mills noted the following day. “On a sideline out of bounds play there's a million things you can do, but you know hindsight is 20/20. I certainly wouldn't change the guy inbounding the ball, and I'm not even sure I would change the play. It was just one of those deals where their athletic kid made a play. We ran the set, and I thought we ran it right, they just made the play.”
Ford paced the offense with 14 while Hardin and Romine had 13 each, Rodden finished with eight and Dooley had six points to his credit. Gilmore led all scorers with 25, with 21 of those in the second half come from behind.
“I thought we played with so much heart, and so much guts,” Mills said of his team. “We just battled and I felt it was probably our best defensive game of the year. They were a little bigger, a little longer and more athletic at every position and I thought we more than held our own.”
Despite the fact the Cougars have been playing at such a high level late in the season, Mills was well aware the quality of the competition left little room for mistakes.
“We played well all night and we maintained the lead, but I felt like in the last minute and a half we really needed that six to eight point cushion and we lost it,” he explained. “And it wasn't anything major, it was a slip up here and a slip up there and we look up and we're only up one with seven seconds left. And, when you're only up one you can't afford to make any mistakes.”
The following night the Warriors fell in the semi-finals to Earle, losing on a last second free throw to move into the seeding game. In the other semi it was Clarendon over Marked Tree, with the Indians fallilng to the Warriors Saturday while the Lions beat Earle in the final that evening.
With the loss the Cougars end the season at 17-11 with a conference tourney championship, and a regional appearance to their credit. The contest was also the final one for the seniors on this year's squad, which includes Hardin, Rodden, Dooley, Drake Lindsley, Colton Lindsey and Ty Jones.