For the South Callaway Bulldogs, it was their most meaningful basketball game in almost 20 years.
Second-seeded South Callaway squared off against top-seeded Montgomery County for the Class 3, District 6 boys' championship late Saturday afternoon in Hermann. Results were not available at press time. The Bulldogs (21-5) - who were trying to avenge an 85-75 loss at Montgomery County on Dec. 10 - were playing for a district title for the first time since 1995, and seeking their first championship since 1992.
South Callaway reached the district finals after downing returning district champion and No. 3 seed (O'Fallon) Christian 64-54 in Thursday night's semifinals. Montgomery County (20-5) was forced to overtime before fending off No. 4 seed Winfield 79-75 in the other semifinal.
The Bulldogs were down 12-7 after one quarter and trailed 28-27 going into halftime, but outscored Christian 21-14 in the third quarter to take a 48-42 lead into the fourth quarter. South Callaway then outscored the Eagles 16-12 over the last 8 minutes to redeem themselves after receiving a 38-point drubbing by Christian in last year's first round.
"This was the biggest win for our basketball program in the past four years," Bulldogs head coach Tony Brandt said Friday afternoon. "Our kids remembered getting beat by them last year. ... I wasn't sure how we would respond to that memory, and after playing poorly in the first round vs. Wright City (a 63-59 win last Tuesday night).
"They responded well to the challenges the coaching staff put before them and played arguably our best game of the season."
Junior guards Cory Hanger and Dax Helsel responded with a game-high 20 and 16 points, respectively, to pace South Callaway. Senior forward Cody Vandelicht also collected a team-high 10 rebounds, while Hanger and senior guard Ethan Ward both had six.
"We have been preaching to our team the importance of balance on the offensive end," Brandt said. "Our two leading scorers on the season (junior guard Troy Hentges and Vandelicht) didn't make it into double figures (with nine and seven points, respectively). We had big scoring contributions from Helsel and Hanger to carry that load.
"The game before we had senior Ethan Ward lead us in scoring for the first time all season. With as many weapons as we have offensively, it makes us tough to scout."
Evan Marcks and Deantrell Prince - Christian's two leading scorers at 19 and 16 points per game, respectively - were held to 13 points apiece Thursday night.
"I was most proud of how we defended in this game," Brandt said. "We held their top two scorers under their season average. Marcks came in leading the St. Louis area in 3-point percentage and makes, and Prince is such a great athlete that both may have given teams matchup problems.
"Cory Hanger took control of Marcks and Troy Hentges drew Prince, and both did a tremendous job. The other players on the floor played great help-side (defense) and we were able to take three charges in the first half."
The Hornets watched a six-point lead slip away in the last 2 minutes as they tumbled to the rival Bulldogs in Friday night's regular-season finale at Roger D. Davis Gymnasium.
Fulton carried a slim 48-47 edge into the fourth quarter, but made just 1-of-7 free throws during that span and was reckless with the ball as it suffered its seventh straight loss and 11th in the last 12 games. Mexico outscored the Hornets 17-14 over the final 8 minutes and was 7-of-11 from the line during that stretch.
"We just didn't finish," Fulton head coach Ryan Shaw said. "We panicked with the lead, if that makes sense. They just went through a 30-second stretch where we panicked and turned the ball over, and didn't make free throws."
Senior guard Chris Tilson registered a team-high 17 points to lead three players in double figures for the Hornets (6-19, 1-11 North Central Missouri Conference), who also lost to the Bulldogs 60-45 on Feb. 19 in Mexico. Junior forward Devin Gibson was next with 15 points Friday night and junior guard Ricky Dawson finished with 11.
Skylar Harrington posted a game-high 19 points to spur three players in double figures for the Bulldogs. D'Milo Nunnelly contributed 16 points and James Norton tallied 15.
The Hornets' junior varsity ended its season with a 16-7 record after a 56-51 triumph over Mexico.
Fulton - receiving the sixth seed - faces No. 3 Moberly at 6 p.m. Monday in the first round of the Class 4, District 8 Tournament in Kirksville. The two teams split their regular-season meetings in NCMC play. The Hornets edged the Spartans 55-52 on Jan. 31 in Fulton, then lost at Moberly 61-43 last Tuesday night.
"We just need to play better than we did up there," Shaw said. "We didn't play very well; we just didn't have a lot of energy. We just need to come out with the same energy and intensity we did the first time we played them, when we beat them."