JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- No. 22 Three Rivers got punched in the mouth after the opening tip Saturday.
Not literally, but Moberly Area came out on fire and scored the first 11 points of the game. Three Rivers went scoreless for the first five minutes and 24 seconds of Saturday's Region XVI Tournament championship.
A team composed of seven freshmen could've folded in a situation like that. Everything was going against them, every bounce and every shot.
Not this team, though. Three Rivers kept chipping away despite trailing by nine at halftime and as many as 15 in the game.
"It's not the first game I've had like that," Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. "I've had probably two or three through the course of coaching the 30-some odd years I've coached, being down like that, and a game to go home.
"Fortunately, so far I've won all of them."
Moberly hit nine 3's on a 52.9 percent clip in the first half to take control.
Three Rivers settled down, though, and fought all the way back, taking its first lead of the night with 3:33 left in the third quarter after Hailee Erickson split a pair of free throws. Meanwhile, Moberly Area's second-half shooting percentage from deep dipped to 33 percent.
"I know everybody was anxious when we were down 15, but it comes a point in time where the kids just have to relax and play," Walk said. "Once we finally made a shot, that's when we just started chipping away, chipping away."
Moberly scored on a couple of drives to the basket to go back up by three heading into the fourth. Jordan Little gave the Lady Raiders the lead for good when she pump faked, side-stepped a defender and drained a 3-pointer with 6:22 left in the game.
Little scored 10 of her 19 points in the final 6:22 of the game, and it helped lift Three Rivers to an 82-77 win to clinch a region championship in what was a gut-check performance. Down the stretch, she knocked down four consecutive free throws when Moberly Area was keeping Hailee Erickson, the team's best free-throw shooter, from catching the ball late.
"They never once had that look of going to fold up and quit," Walk said. "Even in the locker room, they had that look of determination. They knew they were going to win. They had that moxie about it, that will."
Hannah Thurmon stepped up once again scored 20 points, three blocks and grabbed seven rebounds in 35 minutes. There was no hesitation to her shot. Each time she had an open look she took it, knocking down 5 of 9 from the floor and all seven of her free throws. Her two best games of the year have come in the region tournament.
"I just felt really confident tonight," Thurmon said. "These last few games, it's the final one. It could be our last game and we'll never know when, but just getting to this point is such a big deal to all of us, and I knew I had to contribute."
That's where the coaching staff's philosophy of recruiting players from winning high school programs becomes beneficial. A player like Thurmon, who played in state tournaments at Dexter, isn't unfamiliar with the pressure of a big moment.
"You've been here so many times, like in high school, and it's just another game," Thurmon said. "We knew we had to come out harder than ever. Even being down, we never gave up at all."
The Lady Raiders never wavered. They endured an onslaught from Chatori Taylor, who hit 10 3's to break Moberly Area's single-game record. At times, it seemed like she couldn't miss from deep, finishing with a game-high 32 points in 37 minutes.
In the second half, Three Rivers began to shadow her. She still made three treys in the half, but it was a welcome drop in production after she hit seven through the first 20 minutes.
Another big part of the Lady Raiders' comeback was the play of Deanay Watson. She finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes working the middle of the floor from the free-throw line down. Almost every time the Lady Raiders needed a shot, she delivered.
When Three Rivers trailed by 13 points in the second quarter, Watson scored a basket to spark an 8-0 run. When the No. 1 seed trailed by 11 points with under two minutes left in the half, Watson scored twice at the rim to cut the lead to nine by halftime.
To start the fourth, she was scored the first five points of an 8-0 run that gave Three Rivers the lead with seven minutes to go.
Those kinds of plays helped Three Rivers weather every storm on the way to a 19th straight win. Those kinds of plays have given Three Rivers a shot at its first NJCAA tournament appearance since 2004.
That's been the story all year for Three Rivers. No matter the situation, multiple players have stepped up when the team needs a basket.
That's why Three Rivers ended up with four players on the All-Region team. Erickson and Little earned first-team selections, while Katelyn South and J'Kayla Fowler earned second-team honors. Watson was named Region XVI Freshman Player of the Year.
"Coming from redshirting last year to coming this year and actually playing and actually coming this far, it means so much, and I'm just so thankful," Watson said.
Walk didn't leave without some honors of his own. He earned Region XVI Coach of the Year.
"When you get coach of the year, it's not because of what the coach did, it's because of what the players have done," Walk said. "Without them, I'm just somebody sitting on the sideline hollering and screaming. Those kids are the one that give me that opportunity to receive that."
After the game, an emotional Erickson teared up on the sideline knowing her sophomore season gets to continue and she's a region champion.
"It means a lot to me, you know. Just going out my sophomore year, my last year, getting a region championship, it's pretty cool," Erickson said. "Not many people can say they've got that done. It's pretty awesome."
The accolades keep piling up, but the season isn't over yet. The Lady Raiders will host Iowa Western at 7 p.m. Friday with a spot in the national tournament on the line.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic