JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Raiders are back on top of Region XVI.
With Moberly Area hamstrung after getting its entire bench ejected in Friday's semifinals and thus out for the finals, Three Rivers College won 85-58 for its fi rst Region XVI championship since 2012.
Three Rivers will host the Region IV champion at the Bess Activity Center at 7 p.m. Saturday, with the winner going to the national tournament.
"Dream come true," said Bess, who turned 82 on Friday. "I know I had good enough people around me to get it done … this year we fought through one problem after another and got stronger because of it."
It is the 22nd region championship for Bess in 47 seasons at Three Rivers. He now has 1,255 wins and a career .773 win percentage. Among active college basketball coaches with at least 900 wins, only UConn's Geno Auriemma, with a .880 win percentage, has a better mark than Bess.
"We earned it. None was given to us," Three Rivers sophomore Camron Reedus said.
Three Rivers has been to the national tournament 17 times, the last in 2012 after losing in the 2010 title game.
Bess was named Region XVI Coach of the Year after the game for the 22nd time.
With 9 minutes remaining in Moberly Area's semifinal matchup against State Fair and during a timeout, there was a near fight and all bench players for both teams were ejected. Under NJCAA rules, the ejected players also have to miss the following game. Consequently, Three Rivers had 13 players to Moberly Area's five.
"We knew there wasn't any way (Demarco Owens) could stick with us," Bess said of Moberly Area's big man. "I didn't feel safe until the final 5 minutes."
The sophomores stepped up for the Raiders in their biggest game. Three Rivers scoring leader Camron Reedus sank six 3-pointers and finished with 28 points. Big man Kavion Pippen was 6 for 7 shooting and 7 for 8 on free throws for 19 points. Gabe Grant, second on the team in scoring, added four 3-pointers and 18 points, and point guard Ronnie Carson added 10 points and six rebounds.
The Greyhounds ran with the Raiders throughout the first half, but with no subs and the Raiders running eight men in and out, Three Rivers pulled away in the second half.
Neither team held a lead larger than seven points in the first half that featured six lead changes and five ties. The Raiders sank a trio of 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds to take the lead for good.
It was tied at 29 when Grant buried the first, then he hit another the next trip down the court. With time winding down, Reedus caught and shot one more to beat the buzzer and send Three Rivers into the locker room with a 38-31 lead.
The Raiders then opened the second half with two more 3-pointers. Carson hit the first and Reedus followed to give Three Rivers the first double-digit lead of the game.
Three Rivers held at least a two-possession lead for the next 10 minutes, and then Reedus buried a 3 from the top of the that put the Raiders ahead by 15.
A moment later, he finished a three-point play that amped the lead to 17, and put the Greyhounds in the bonus with 8 minutes to play.
Owens started cramping up a moment later, but with no available subs, he was left to stretch on the court and limp up and down the floor as best he can.
The Raiders, subbing constantly, earned their biggest lead of the game when they set the final score.
"I'm ecstatic. This is something I wanted for so long," Grant said. "Any championship is a big deal … just to say I'm a champion of anything is a big deal."
Moberly Area, needing to avoid anyone fouling out, committed five fouls in the first half and nobody picked up a third foul until Owens got his midway through the second half. At the 5 minute mark, every Greyhound had three fouls. Nobody fouled out. To reach the district championship, the Raiders had to go through two nationally ranked teams in No. 9 Mineral Area, and the No. 16 Greyhounds, albeit with only five players.
The Raiders played the championship game without Mamadou Diakhaby who injured his knee in the semifinals. Diakhaby is averaging 3.5 points and 3.8 rebounds this season. When the moment came, he was the one the team told to go accept the championship trophy.
Three Rivers enters the district championship on an eight-game winning streak. They last lost at home against Moberly Area by three points on Jan. 28. Three Rivers won its first 10 games of the season and its first 12 of 13 to briefly crack the national rankings. It then went 4-6 before starting its current winning streak at North Arkansas on Jan. 31.