Improvement wasn't on the minds of the Central Tigers after a 71-59 home loss to Poplar Bluff Friday night.
The pain of a game, unthinkable to win the past few years, was outweighing any consolation.
"That was a hard loss we should have won," said Central junior Ryan Delph, who scored a team-high 18 points. "With three minutes left they only had us by two, and we should have capitalized."
"I thought we were going to win," said Tigers point guard Will Johnson. "'Cause every time we have a close game like that we battle back and win."
It was obvious last year's 4-21 season was light-years away.
Instead, the Tigers (13-5) were kicking themselves for losing to a team with an intimidating resume. The Mules came in as the second-ranked team in Class 5 and No. 1 in Southeast Missouri with a nine-game winning streak and an 18-1 record.
The Tigers, who had a four-game winning streak snapped, ignored the credentials and a 13-point halftime deficit. They closed to within a point, 51-50, with five minutes left in the game before it all came unraveled. The Mules hurt the Tigers on the boards with three offensive rebound putbacks down the stretch as they outscored the Tigers 20-9 over the last five minutes of the game.
Central also lost its big man, 6-foot-8 Scott Chestnutt with 2:25 left, which sealed their fate. Chestnutt fouled out with just eight points after scoring a career-high 35 earlier in the week.
"If Scott Chestnutt stays in the game, it's a different game," Central coach Derek McCord said.
While the Tigers lost, they won some respect from Poplar Bluff's Tyler Hansbrough. The Mules' 6-foot-8 sophomore finished with a game-high 26 points.
"Central really came a long way from last year," Hansbrough said. "Everybody on their team has improved."
Cheron Pearson added 18 points for the Mules.
Delph was the only Tiger to finish in double figures.
"Hats off to them, they're a really good basketball team, but at the same time I think that's a team we can beat," McCord said. "Hopefully we can get another shot at them in the district tournament. I know they're going to be there in the district championship, and hopefully we'll be."
Central's last lead came in the first quarter when Jake Knepp put the Tigers up 10-9 with a 15-foot jumper. Pearson put Poplar Bluff ahead for good the next trip down the floor, scoring inside with 1:18 left. Glen Yandell added a fastbreak layin for a 13-10 lead at the end of the quarter.
The Mules opened the second quarter with a 10-2 spurt and had their lead up to 23-12 at the 5:50 mark. Bluff took a 35-22 lead into halftime.
The Tigers found new life in the third quarter when they introduced full-court pressure that bothered the Mules. Central trailed 40-26 before scoring on seven consecutive possessions as they upped the pace. A Corey Bowman free throw capped the possessions and cut the lead to 44-40. Mitch Craft then cut the lead to 44-42 when he scored inside off a no-look pass from Delph with 2:17 left in the quarter.
Central trailed by two points when Yandell closed the third-quarter scoring with a tip-in to give Bluff a 48-44 lead.
Central cut the lead to two points twice at the start of the fourth quarter on a drive by Delph and offensive rebound by Anthony Harris, the latter making the score 50-48.
Hansbrough hit a free throw when Chestnutt picked up his fourth foul with 6:11 left for a 51-48 lead. Chestnutt headed to the bench -- he returned with about four minutes left -- but Central closed to gap to 51-50 when Willie Colon put in an offensive rebound at the 5:33 mark.
Anthony Gilberto and Hansbrough scored the next two trips down the court for Bluff, which led 55-50 .
The Tigers still trailed 57-53 with 3:15 left but saw Bluff go on a 9-0 run. Chestnutt fouled out two points into the spurt.
The Mules outscored the Tigers 14-4 from the free-throw line on the game. Central hit on just 4 of 12 attempts.
McCord did allow himself perspective that helped deal with the loss.
"This is a totally different team," McCord said. "Any time you take over a program that struggles, you're looking at four to five years to really get things going in the right direction. I think we've righted this ship in one year. And really I think we're ahead of schedule."
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