POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. – Second-year head coach Luke Strege diverted all credit Saturday night while acknowledging the magnitude of a signature victory by his unbeaten Mineral Area men’s basketball team.
Clutch shots from sophomore guard Shawn Roundtree helped the sixth-ranked Cardinals survive their second straight overtime thriller in a massive 80-78 triumph over Region 16 rival Three Rivers.
Mineral Area (17-0, 1-0) shook off any rust from an unexpected three-week gap between contests, and stunned a packed Bess Activities Center after being swept by the Raiders last year.
“We recruit kids with character, because in close games, I think that wins,” Strege said. “We have a group that are winners and have been through things in their lives. They’ve hit adversity in real-world situations, so when they get into a tough game situation, it’s easy for them to not panic.
“You have to find a way to steal a couple of road games and win the ones at home in this region. We stole one tonight from a legendary coach,” said Strege in reference to Gene Bess, whose 1,245 career wins are the most in college basketball history. “It’s a night that I’ll never forget, and I’ll remember this group because they won this game. I got outcoached, but our guys picked me up and carried us.”
Roundtree, a transfer from Division I program Missouri State, posted game highs with 24 points and four assists. The Cardinals shot 47 percent from the field and sank 24-of-28 free throws.
His strong finish on a cross-over drive with 25 seconds remaining in the extra session put Mineral Area ahead to stay after a 3-pointer by Gabe Grant gave the home team a brief 78-77 edge.
Three Rivers (14-4, 0-1) missed two subsequent launches from long range, including a potential winning look from Grant the only grazed the front rim as time expired.
“The atmosphere here at Three Rivers was amazing,” said Roundtree, who netted a career-high 26 points in a Dec. 17 overtime win at SE Illinois that narrowly capped a perfect first semester for the Cardinals. “It was a great way to start off region play.”
Zac Cuthbertson and Lamar Morgan scored 12 points each, and Darius Thompson added 10 for Mineral Area, which trailed 67-60 with three minutes left in regulation.
The Cardinals responded with stingy defense, and attacked off the dribble for an enormous 8-0 run after incessant fouls had interrupted the flow throughout much of the second half.
“There are no excuses. You can’t say the officials called it one way or the other. Those guys are good,” Strege said. “You have to adjust, so we then tried to penetrate and do some more things toward the rim to get those fouls called as well.”
Back-to-back layups by Thompson and Amar Miller fueled the comeback, and Morgan powered through defenders for a 68-67 MAC advantage after earlier drawing no whistle despite heavy contact.
The Raiders regained the lead on an immediate pull-up jumper by Aidan Saunders, but could only split two ensuing trips to the line after stealing ensuing passes.
Roundtree was left open along the left wing with 10 seconds on the game clock, and did not hesitate while draining the tying 3-pointer at 71-71.
“It was too good to pass up,” he said. “It was open and those are the shots you dream about when you practice. I didn’t think about it, and just let it go.”
“He has played well lately across the board,” Strege said. “Here’s a straight-A student and the highest character kid you could meet. In those late-game situations, there’s nobody else I want with the ball, because at least, he’ll make a smart decision and put us in a position to be successful.”
Three Rivers missed a long jumper and putback attempt at the buzzer, then blew two premium layup attempts after Mineral Area scored first in overtime on a dish from Morgan to Devin Thomas.
Camron Reedus logged 43 minutes and scored 18 of his 22 points after halftime for the Raiders, who rebounded several misses that failed to draw iron while going 8-of-29 from beyond the arc.
Mineral Area coaxed five separate charging fouls in the game, and mostly quieted the home portion of the capacity crowd during a methodical first half.
Mark Laros and Justin Storey scored consecutive baskets off the bench, and Djibril Diallo converted two free throws off a rare transition opportunity.
Thompson created the Cardinals’ largest lead at 32-23 with a 3-pointer off ball reversal. However, the Raiders chipped away at the line to pull within 34-31 at intermission.
Three Rivers surged ahead 43-42 on a putback and 3-point play from Mamadou Diakhaby after Grant cashed in a previous second chance with two free throws.
“A team led by Coach Bess is will always be relentless on the glass, and I’m just learning this,” Strege added. “Our guys had to experience this in order to be prepared for it next time. They outworked us and outhustled us in the second half. We just made plays down the stretch.”
Cuthbertson was visibly perplexed by a technical called against him following a blocked shot, and had to watch the final nine minutes after fouling out.
A 3-pointer by Ronnie Carson signaled the maximum Three Rivers advantage at 64-55 with 4:58 to play in regulation as the Cardinals had to jumble their lineup.
“Everyone was encouraging each other to stay positive the whole time,” Roundtree said. “We had a sense that we would win this game, so that’s the mindset we kept.”
Saunders tallied 20 points and Grant provided 15 more in defeat. Diakhaby grabbed a game-high nine rebounds and chipped in eight points.
Mineral Area will host the Missouri Baptist junior varsity on Wednesday before resuming the Region 16 schedule next Saturday at MSU-West Plains.