By TONY EIERDAM
RIVER OAKS – For three quarters Tuesday night in a District 6-3A contest at Castleberry High School, the Castleberry Lions shot the three well and ran its offense almost to perfection as they carved out a 54-33 lead over the heavily-favored Mineral Wells Rams.
The Lions had stunned the Rams with 27 first-quarter points – thanks in part to hitting their first five three-pointers – and with the Rams scoring just eight points in the first eight minutes a 27-8 lead, which grew into a 47-18 lead early in the third quarter, seemed insurmountable as the upset appeared more than just likely.
And leading by 21 points as the game moved to the fourth quarter, Castleberry would certainly chew time off the clock in the fourth in an effort to secure the win.
Considering all of that, if Castleberry would score just a mere eight points in the final period the Rams would have to score 29 points to tie the contest, which under the circumstances even the most optimistic of Rams’ fans would understand that winning this game was a near impossible task.
Castleberry did score exactly eight points in the final stanza, but the Rams, employing a smothering press and half-court trap, forced turnovers and scored 32 in the period to come away with an improbable yet exhilarating 65-62 win to stay alone in second place in 6-3A.
“I told the kids (between the third and fourth period break) that we need to score 30 in the fourth to win the game,,” an exhausted Rams head coach Aaron Pappas said moments after the game. “I thought the kids did a great job defensively in the second half – getting stops and rebounding the ball – and in my coaching career that is one of the biggest comebacks I have experienced.
“It was a great win for us. But my hat is also off to Castleberry. They had a great game plan. They ran a triangle-and-two defense and got on our two best scorers (Biren Clardy and Nick Wendt).
“It threw us for a loop early, but we finally played tough defense and came back to win the game. I couldn’t be happier.”
Mineral Wells junior point guard Biren Clardy said there was no panic on the team as it trailed by 21 heading into the fourth quarter.
“We just came together as a team and fought until the very end,” Clardy, who led the Rams with 20 points, said. “We knew we needed to step up our defense and not foul, and that’s what we did. This was a great team win.”
The genesis of the Rams’ comeback began late in the third quarter when the team, trailing 50-22, closed the period on a 11-2 run.
A great individual effort by Rascellis Williams got the team back into the contest. Williams had scored the final four points of the third quarter, and at the beginning of the fourth he went on a personal 9-0 run that included scoring on a put back, two layups and on a three-point play where he scored on a driving layup, was fouled, and connected on the charity shot.
Williams ended his run with a layup off a brilliant feed from Clardy that cut the hosts’ dwindling lead to 54-42.
It was Clardy’s turn, next.
Off a feed from Williams, Clardy scored on a layup, and after a Lions’ turnover, Clardy nailed a three-point bucket from the right perimeter to cut the lead to 54-47 which capped a 20-0 run.
The Lions extended their lead to 58-50 after Eric Hays hit a pair of free throws and a jumper, but the Rams were not unruffled.
Point guard Dexter Cross, who was a defensive nightmare for the Lions all night, came through on the offensive end with a driving layup, and Nick
Wendt followed with a pair from the line as MWHS cut the CHS lead to 58-54 with 4:02 left to play. Amazingly, the Rams needed less than four minutes to cut a 21-point deficit down to just four points.
The Lions came back and hit a pair of free throws, but Cross came back with a three from the left baseline followed by a short jumper to cut the Lions’ lead to 60-59 with 1:55 remaining in the contest.
Although the Rams had whittled the score down to a point the game was still in doubt.
Castleberry guard Adrian Rodriguez was fouled driving the lane and connected on a pair from the line to extend the Lions’ lead to 62-59 with 1:37 left in regulation.
The Rams’ success in the second half came from mainly driving the lane, and they used the tactic to tie the score. Guard Reece Tarver drew a foul on a drive and hit one of two charity shots to cut the lead to 62-60 with 1:29 left.
Castleberry showed the noose was tightening as the Rams’ smothering pressure defense forced an errant throw out of bounds. Wendt was fouled driving the lane on the ensuing possession, and he canned two from the line to tie the game, 62-62, with 1:12 left to play much to the delight of the small – but loud – visiting Rams’ crowd.
The game then turned wacky as both teams turned the ball over twice. With the game tied with 42 seconds left to play, it appeared Castleberry would work the clock down for a last shot.
But Cross had a different plan.
The lightning-quick guard stole the ball near mid court, drove the lane and scored on a layup and was fouled as the Rams took their first lead of the game, 64-62, with 33 seconds left to play.
However, the drama continued as Cross missed the free throw, and once again the Lions had a chance for the last shot to try and tie the game or win it with a three-pointer.
With about 13 seconds left, Castleberry guard Christian Cardona missed a three-point attempt and a hustling Wendt pulled down the biggest rebound of the contest and was fouled with 10 ticks left on the clock.
But again, the Rams could not salt the game away as Wendt hit the first free throw for a 65-62 lead but missed the second.
Castleberry guard Eduardo Torres’ desperation three-point attempt at the buzzer fell short as the Rams danced off the court with an unlikely comeback victory.
“We needed to win this game (to stay in second place),” Pappas said. “We played an awful first half and a great second half. I am kind of at a loss for words. I felt like I was going to pass out from yelling and screaming.
“As a coach I didn’t like being down 27 at the half, but these kids fought hard and did what it took on both sides of the court to win the game.
“It also helps our confidence. If you can come back from 29 down against a pretty good team like Castleberry, which shot the ball extremely well, it has to give you confidence in any situation in the future.”
MWHS 8 8 17 32 – 65
CHS 27 16 11 8 – 62
MWHS – Biren Clardy 20, Nick Wendt 5, Broderick Johnson 10, Dexter Cross 11, Rascellis Williams 17, Coy Barrick 1, Reece Tarver 1.