Gene Bess had to hand out the District IV championship trophy Saturday night. "We've made a lot of teams over the years happy. I hate to do it, but we did it again tonight," said Bess, the Three Rivers athletic director and men's basketball coach.
With a 79-75 loss on Saturday at the Bess Activity Center, the Raiders missed out on their best chance to return to Hutchinson, Kansas and the NJCAA National Tournament for the first time since 2012. "It sucks. I'm really in shock right now," Three Rivers sophomore Gabe Grant said. "To be honest, I really did not expect this to happen. I never planned for this. I'm speechless. I don't think I'm going to be able to comprehend this until tomorrow."
Three Rivers will now hope for one of four at-large bids, one of which will likely go to No. 2 ranked Hutchinson (Kan.), which lost its district championship. The at-large teams will be announced at 5:30 p.m. Sunday online at njcaa.org. The full bracket will be released at 1:30 p.m. Monday. Bess said the Raiders have "zero chance" at a bid. "You don't lose eight games and get an at-large," Bess said. "We didn't play well enough to win tonight. Life goes on." Three Rivers (25-8), which never led Saturday and tied the game once, was down by five when it put Highland (27-6) in the double bonus with 4:44 to play.
A minute later, Kavion Pippen scooped up a loose ball for second-chance points that made it a four point game.
The Raiders got a stop and Gabe Grant, who led Three Rivers with 20 points, drove and sank an off-balance layup. After a Three Rives timeout, Highland's Ante Sustic got called for an illegal screen. It was the center's fourth foul.
At the other end, Camron Reedus popped off a screen and missed a 3 to put the Raiders in front for the first time.
Cougar point guard Deang Deang melted the shot clock, and turned it over when he tried to drive to the basket. Ronnie Carson found Aidan Saunders for a transition layup to tie the game for the first time since the opening possession.
"I knew he had the ball and I just wanted to keep running straight for the lane," Saunders said. "As soon as he saw me he dished it off and I just had to finish it. At that point I said, 'We're not going home yet.'"
With 90 seconds to go, Deang drove on Sadaeys Miller, drew a double team and found Jackson under the basket for 2.
Three Rivers turned it over at the other end. With under a minute to go, Jackson, who led Highland with 25 points, tried a spin move and drew a shooting foul against Pippen. He made both free throws to put Highland up four with 52 seconds left.
Grant tried for a quick 3 that missed short, and Three Rivers started fouling with their season on the brink.
In the bonus, Josh Carter sank one and Pippen got a quick bucket to make it a three-point game with 30 seconds to play.
The Raiders got a steal and tried to find space for a game-tying 3 but couldn't. Reedus eventually took a 25-footer over two Cougars with 5 seconds left and missed.
The Raiders committed a quick foul and Jackson sank the front end to seal the game. "Most importantly, I'm not concerned about the loss, I'm just proud of the way our guys fought," Saunders said. "We fought hard all season, playing against top ranked opponents, going down to Florida. We could've quit easy, could've stopped during our three-game losing streak, but we didn't. A lot of people could say stuff about the loss, but I'm just proud of the guys.
We had each other's backs the whole season." Reedus and Saunders both finished with 13 points and Pippen added 12. Highland shot 50 percent on 3-pointers, and 50 percent overall. "I've been talking to guys who have played them all year with me being from Chicago and them being from that area," Grant said. "I knew they were good, I just feel like we ran out of gas. Something happened where we just couldn't take it to that next gear and push over. They wanted it and I can't give nothing but respect to them."
The Raiders won the rebounding and turnover battles to earn nine more shots than the Cougars, but still made five fewer field goals after shooting 37 percent from the field. Pippen, who was 6 for 9 shooting against Highland's small front court, was the only Raider to shoot better than 50 percent. His fellow big man in Terrence Parker had four points and nine rebounds on 33 percent shooting. "I thought they were just about coming into their own and didn't quite get there," Bess said of Parker and Pippen, both sophomores.
"They have a great future and I wish the rest of the sophomores the best." The past six years have been tough on Bess and his staff. The college self-imposed sanctions in 2012, reducing the team's number of scholarships, and also cut the program's budget and the second assistant coach position.
Three Rivers went 15-15 that season, the worst record in 47 years under Bess. The Raiders have steadily improved since. They went 16-13 the following season. In 2014-15, the school got a new president and the team hired Bryan Sherrer as a second assistant and recruiting coordinator. The Raiders went 23-8 and lost in the Region XVI semifinals.
Last season, the Raiders were the top seed going into the region tourney, but again lost in the semifinals to go 23-8 two years in a row. Had the Raiders lost to Mineral Area in the semifinals, it would have been three straight years of going 23-8 and an early bus ride back to Poplar Bluff. Except the Raiders grabbed the next rung on that ladder with a 71-70 win.
In the championship game against No. 16 Moberly Area, which was playing with five players after having its entire bench ejected in the semifinals, Three Rivers was up seven at halftime and pulled away in the second half with the Greyhounds playing on tired legs.
"I thought this was our year after we beat Mineral Area and then got blessed with Moberly," Bess said. "We didn't quite get it together this year. "When you've got Brian Bess and Bryan Sherrer on your bench and working with you, you've got a chance every time you go out there," Bess added. "I give our president (Wesley Payne) a lot of credit. He and the board of trustees, we have a fabulous college here simply because of those guys. They have made so much progress here in helping us past some of those down years. You don't turn something like that around overnight."