PARK HILLS – The challenge of facing fourth-ranked and fellow unbeaten program Moberly already gave the Mineral Area men’s basketball team enough reasons for concern.

But when a malfunctioning shot clock forced an impromptu change of the rules on Saturday night, the need to create separation on the scoreboard became even more imperative.

The sixth-ranked Cardinals built a double-digit lead in the second half, and employed a patient approach down the stretch to prevail 66-58 in a battle of emerging junior college heavyweights.

Darius Thompson and Shawn Roundtree each scored 13 points in a balanced effort as Mineral Area landed five players in double figures while making 19-of-25 free throws.

The contest marked the first clash between top-10 opponents in NJCAA Division I this season. It was also the first of two guaranteed meetings for the longtime Region 16 rivals.

Round one belonged to Mineral Area (21-0, 3-0), which extended its perfect record and the longest winning streak in school history while backed by an enthusiastic capacity crowd at Sechrest Fieldhouse.

“There were times when I looked at our guys, and they were exhausted,” Mineral Area head coach Luke Strege said. “I knew they needed to come out, but then they could feel the energy from the crowd. They would look at me like, ‘I’m good, Coach,’ even though they weren’t.”

“This crowd is what carried us to victory,” he added. “This was what my family and I had in mind when we came here. To see it happen is really rewarding for the time that we’ve put into this community. It was just a great night.”

Brandon Better sank four 3-pointers in the second half, and scored a game-high 14 as Moberly (19-1, 2-1) was held substantially below its season average of 91 points.

The Greyhounds grabbed a 31-27 edge when Leonard Harper-Baker muscled in a second-chance shot, but a pivotal 11-2 surge by Mineral Area reversed the momentum.

Roundtree swished a 3-pointer for his first field goal of the night, and Devin Thomas provided his own putback before sinking all three free throws on a subsequent foul along the perimeter.

Thomas picked up his second foul with about six minutes left before halftime, and rested for an extended spell after recording three early blocks. He also gathered seven rebounds.

“My job is to protect the rim, and I love blocking shots,” Thomas said. “I just do whatever I can to help the team. It’s the best team I’ve ever been on.

“Right now we’re 21-0 and everything is going good for us. But we just have to focus on our next game Wednesday and move on.”

Three separate delays occurred in the early minutes as the 30-second clock at one end failed to properly display. Officials conferred with Strege and Moberly coach Pat Smith, and decided to continue without the customary time limit to shoot.

“There was no way to measure the 30 seconds, and there was no backup clock. That situation has never happened to us in practice,” Strege said. “So when the rules of the game became different, we really had to look for good shots since there was no pressure to hurry.

“It took our guys a while to adjust, and I didn’t want to play that way. But when the officials come to you and tell you that those are the rules, then those are the rules.”

Mineral Area capitalized amid the unusual circumstances after Amar Miller attacked for a 3-point play and Djibril Diallo scored off a trapping steal to lead 46-36 with 10 minutes left.

A triple by Better was answered when the Cardinals melted away roughly 45 seconds and scored on an entry feed from Miller to a cutting Diallo.

Moberly missed several subsequent chances from within five feet, and faced a maximum deficit of 58-46 when Roundtree drew contact on a 3-point play with 3:28 remaining.

Thompson zipped a pass into Thomas for an uncontested dunk after Moberly made four straight free throws, and MAC increased a smaller 60-55 margin with a 6-0 run in the closing moments.

Zac Cuthbertson matched Diallo and Thomas with 10 points each in the victory. Each team unofficially committed 10 turnovers.

Neither offense sustained much consistency during a disjointed first half, but the Cardinals did establish an interior presence. Thompson and Thomas drove around screens for early layups.

“I think it’s an unselfish thing to screen for a teammate and get him open for a bucket, because it doesn’t reward yourself,” Strege said. “We require our big guys to screen a lot, but they are willing to give up their bodies. That’s just the unselfish nature of this team. They sacrifice for each other like a family of brothers, and don’t care who scores.”

Thompson provided two 3-pointers plus two free throws off a steal for a 19-10 edge after the Cardinals missed their first four attempts from long range.

Four returning sophomores – Mark Laros, Lamar Morgan, Thompson and Diallo – gained a measure of revenge after last season ended with a loss to Moberly, which reached the national tournament round of 16.

“It’s a great feeling. My teammates were looking out for me and threw some great passes,” Thompson said. “We’re on a roll, and we have each other’s backs. And I loved the crowd here.”

Although Diallo drew a charging foul, the Greyhounds soon achieved their initial lead at 26-25 as Harper-Baker beat the buzzer from the corner after Mar’Qywell Jackson hit two threes off skip passes.

Jackson equaled Jabari Antwine with 13 points each for Moberly, which will host the Feb. 4 rematch.

Mineral Area will host St. Louis on Wednesday with a probable top-5 ranking next to its name.

Matt King is the sports editor for the Daily Journal. Contact him at mking@dailyjournalonine.com

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