Final games to a basketball season always hurt.
So does running into a wall with a head of momentum.
The Central Tigers encountered a double whammy Thursday night on their home floor with a 69-61 loss to Poplar Bluff in the Class 5, District 1 championship game.
Rallying from an early deficit, with its confidence growing each quarter before a standing-room only crowd, the Tigers were at their pinnacle when an upset over the state-ranked Mules collapsed.
Central, which trailed by 10 points early in the second quarter, held its biggest lead of the night, 51-45, when point guard Will Johnson scored off a steal late in the third quarter. Poplar Bluff countered with a basket at the buzzer to trim the lead to 51-47, but Central was riding high.
It proved to be the crest of a 17-10 season. There would be no jubilant district crown after last year's 4-21 season.
"It's almost like it shocked us that we got up, and then we kind of shut down," Central junior Jake Knepp said.
The Mules (24-3), who lost two of their previous four games, were on the ropes and looking beatable.
"They had us on our heels," said Tyler Hansbrough, the Mules' 6-foot-8 sophomore. "I was thinking somehow we've got to get back in this game. We just stepped up and hit some big shots."
Central managed just two Scott Chestnutt free throws over the next six minutes, 48 seconds. By that time they found themselves staring at their biggest deficit of the game with the defending district champions holding a 64-53 lead.
Central missed its first eight shots of the period and committed six turnovers in the span as Poplar Bluff went on a 14-1 run.
"We got on our horses and rode it on out," said Poplar Bluff senior guard Tony Webb, who scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Chestnutt, who finished with 14 points, opened the period with a free throw to extend the lead to 52-47, but Mules sophomore Brad Chronister connected on a 3-point shot well behind the arc to cut the lead to two. The Mules tied the scored 52-52 when Webb fed Hansbrough down low with 6:41 left. Webb put the Mules ahead for good, 54-52, when he stole the ball on Central's next possession and scored a layin off a give-and-go with Chronister.
Hansbrough, who finished with a team-high 15 points, stole a pass on the Tigers' next trip downcourt and was fouled as he drove to the basket. He upped the lead to 56-52 at the free-throw line, commencing a Mule free-throw procession that lasted the final six minutes.
Chestnutt interrupted with a free throw to put the Tigers within 56-53, but Webb countered with an offensive putback for a 58-53 lead.
The Mules' final 11 points came at the free-throw line.
"We missed a lot at Charleston," Hansbrough said of free throws in an overtime loss Friday in the SEMO Conference title game. "That's what probably lost us the game there. We didn't want to do it again, so we worked on it."
Hansbrough's freshman brother, Ben, hit six of seven free throws in the period.
"It took their best total team effort to beat us," Central coach Derek McCord said. "We took their best punch."
The Mules had led 22-12 early in the second quarter, but Central later took its first lead, 31-29, when Knepp hit a high-arching shot from around the free-throw line. The score was tied 31-31 at halftime.
The Tigers, who suffered the second loss of the season to Poplar Bluff, had the Mules on the ropes in the third quarter.
Central trailed 39-37 in the third quarter when it went on a 6-0 spurt with Knepp, Johnson and Chestnutt scored off layups on consecutive trips down the floor. Central led for the remainder of the period.
" I felt the confidence. I thought we were going to do it," senior guard Jay Ruark said. "I felt like it was there. It just wasn't meant to be."
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