HILLSBORO, Mo. — The Mineral Area men’s basketball team delivered the ideal first half Friday nght while trying to upset No. 1 seed State Fair in the Region XVI tournament semifinal round.
The 4th-seeded Cardinals made 14 of their first 19 shots from the field in a combination of rhythmic passing, patient selection and elevated energy.
But a gradual comeback by the Roadrunners set the stage for an exciting final stretch, and State Fair continued its perfect record against region foes this season with a narrow 71-68 win.
Kevin Punter scored a game-high 21 points as the Roadrunners relied on their three most dangerous weapons to escape, but only after two missed free throws gave Mineral Area a final chance to force overtime.
The Cardinals inbounded with 6.8 seconds left, but a contested corner 3-pointer by Anthony Virdure caromed off the iron just before time expired.
Kedar Edwards connected five times from long range to compile 19 points, and Joe Thomasson had 18 in the victory while going 8-of-10 at the line.
State Fair (23-6) committed just nine turnovers and will face Moberly for the region title at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The winner of that contest will secure an automatic bid to the NJCAA national tournament.
Freshman guard Cris Craig drained five 3-pointers to pace Mineral Area (17-14) with 17 points. One such basket was awarded on a goal-tending violation and briefly put the Cardinals ahead 56-55 with eight minutes left.
Randy Holmes provided a late spark with two field goals and a key interior assist when center Orlando Johnson answered Punter’s conventional 3-point play to give MAC its last lead at 66-65.
The Cardinals would hang tough until the finish, but failed to match the timely plays of the Roadrunners in crunch time. Mineral Area was perfect at the charity stripe, but earned just five attempts in the game.
Virdure totaled 16 points and was a star contributor throughout a stellar freshman season that ultimately culminated in frustration.
He missed two jumpers after a Punter runner pushed State Fair back on top. His feet later tangled just as a pass was arriving along the sideline, resulting in a crucial turnover with the Cardinals down by three.
Thomasson made it 71-66 with his second straight pair of free throws, and Aaron Cassell’s runner with 18 seconds left capped the scoring.
Johnson tallied 12 points and Cassell had 10 for Mineral Area, which could not repeat the postseason surge that ended a 36-year gap between national tournament appearances last year.
The Cardinals went 2-6 in regional play during the regular season, but were clearly the more focused and less anxious squad at the outset on Friday.
Craig and Cassell sank the first two Mineral Area jumpers, and Virdure made a subsequent steal before dishing for a Johnson dunk and 6-0 start.
Good work along the boards created consecutive putbacks for Holmes and Bryce Weibrecht before the Cardinals turned to the perimeter.
Malik Brown nailed a corner three before Craig landed two more triples, and Cassell extended the margin to 37-22.
State Fair would eventually relax as the Mineral Area offense cooled, and Punter highlighted a 12-2 run with two layups in transition.
MAC restored a 47-38 separation early in the second half. Edwards kicked off a pivotal 10-0 answer from beyond the arc, and Dondre Alexander hit his lone triple to prompt a series of 11 lead changes.
Mineral Area 41 27 - 68
State Fair 34 37 - 71
Mineral Area - Cris Craig 17, Anthony Virdure 16, Orlando Johnson 12, Aaron Cassell 10, Randy Holmes 8, Malik Brown 3, Bryce Weibrecht 2. 3-point FG - Craig 5, Cassell 2, Virdure, Brown. (FT: 5-5)
State Fair - Kevin Punter 21, Kedar Edwards 19, Joe Thomasson 18, Dondre Alexander 5, Deron Hill 3, Ben Denbow 3, Jean-Louis Wanya 2. 3-point FG - Edwards 5, Punter, Alexander, Denbow. (FT: 15-20)