By TONY EIERDAM
After a slow start and falling behind by 29 points in a district game in the first half of league play but coming back to win, the Mineral Wells Rams in their following five district games have focused on and executed good starts.
Even in a blowout loss to state-ranked No. 2 Kennedale (ranked No. 1 in some polls) the Rams led 19-17 at the end of the first quarter.
And Friday night against Castleberry at the MWHS gym the Rams once again jumped out to an early advantage with 31 points in the opening period and appeared on their way to a sixth district win.
But a team that understands now how to start fast has appeared to have forgotten how to finish.
Plagued by fourth-quarter turnovers and missed free throws that sent the game into overtime, and in an overtime period that saw the Rams go 1-for-5 at the free throw line, the Rams still found themselves with the ball and a one-point lead with 33 seconds left in the extra session.
But three consecutive turnovers, including two miscues after Castleberry forward Daniel Gandy nailed a three at the top of the key to give the Lions a two-point lead, led to a 77-75 loss to Castleberry that keeps the Rams in third place – a game behind second-place Springtown and a game ahead of fourth-place Castleberry – with one game remaining on the 6-3A slate.
The Rams will close the district season on Tuesday at Lake Worth, while Castleberry will host Springtown.
“Free throws and turnovers down the stretch killed us,”Rams head coach Aaron Pappas said. “That was the ball game.
“Castleberry played great and my hat is off to them once again. They gave us a game on our home court and now we are probably looking like we will finish in third place assuming we can beat Lake Worth on Tuesday.
“But you can’t assume anything in this district. Castleberry has improved year after year, they have a great coach (Bart Beasley) and they took it to us. They wanted it more than we did.”
The win seals a playoff berth for the Lions.
The Rams had several chances to put the game away in the fourth quarter. Castleberry had taken a 67-61 lead before senior guard Reece Tarver nailed a three-pointer and Rascellis Williams followed with a short jumper to cut the lead to 67-66 with 3:15 left in regulation.
A steal by Williams led to a layup and a one-point Rams’ lead, but two missed shots and a turnover the next two minutes produced no points.
Castleberry senior guard Eric Hays took advantage and scored on a layup down the left side to give the Lions a 69-68 lead with 17 seconds left to play.
The Rams had a chance to win the contest when senior guard Dexter Cross drove the lane and narrowly missed a game-winning layup. But Cross was fouled on the play and was awarded two free throws with one tick left on the clock. Cross missed the first free throw attempt but hit the crucial second charity shot to send the game into overtime.
Rams post Broderick Johnson began the overtime period with a turn-around jumper from the lane that gave MWHS a 71-69 lead.
Johnson had a “monster game,” recording a double double. He finished with 16 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, including 10 offensive rebounds.
The Rams extended their overtime lead to 74-71 when Biren Clardy hit one of two at the free throw line. However, Clardy and Williams would both have chances with one-and-one’s at the charity stripe, but the basketball gods were not smiling on the Rams as both chances rimmed out.
Clardy gave the Rams another chance to win when he grabbed a critical rebound on the Lions’ ensuing possession, and Tarver was fouled.
MWHS bad luck at the free throw line continued as Tarver missed the front end of a two-foul-shot opportunity.
But Tarver collected himself and drained the second charity shot to increase the Rams’ lead to 75-71 with 45 seconds left in overtime.
Castleberry’s Gandy hit a three to cut the lead to one point, and after an untimely MWHS turnover with 33 seconds remaining, Gandy hit the trey that tuned out to be the game-winning shot.
“I am surprised we missed those free throws,”Pappas continued. “But it is what it is, and what it is is a loss. But we have to deal with it and get prepared for Tuesday at Lake Worth.”