During the regular season the Wellsville-Middletown varsity boys basketball team finished four games below .500 and never really challenged North Callaway for the Eastern Missouri Conference championship.
Then came the playoffs and the Tigers went on a four-game winning streak heading into last Saturdays Class 1 Quarterfinals matchup at Salisbury against Linn County. Considering the squad had just eight players, only two of which were seniors, that was quite the accomplishment. At the end of the first quarter when the squad was up 20-11, a trip to Springfield this weekend for the Final Four seemed more than realistic.
The problem was, the Mustangs had those exact same hopes and dreams. So, when Linn County came charging back to steal this contest at they very end from Wellsville-Middletown 55-49 despite 16 points by Keaton Mayes, a cry of sorrow could be heard all across Tiger nation.
"We came out, played as a team and we're leaving as a team. We tried to extend our seniors season by a game, but we couldn't make that happen," said Mayes. "My teammates really opened me up by driving and passing me the ball. That allowed me to get some easy baskets."
In that opening session it was four triples that made the difference for Wellsville-Middletown. This included three by Mitchell Canterbury and one from Dennis Hunt that allowed their squad to claim an 11-point advantage heading into the second.
"We came out hot. We had a nice roll going in the second half. I guess they went into halftime and got pumped up or something because we didn't capitalize on our lead and they came back," said guard Clayton Ebers. "We had a great season. Our record doesn't show it, but we played some tough teams. I love all my guys and my coaches."
Even though the Tigers did go into the break leading 31-23, by the time the third quarter was over they were down 34-33. The big reason for that was their only points in that stanza was a bucket by Mayes. What that led to was when Ebers spilt a pair of free throws at 6:48 of the fourth to tie the game, Kade Ward's three-pointer shortly there-after for Linn County was an absolute morale killer, and the sound of the maximum-capacity crowd cheering for him only exacerbated that effect.
"(We allowed) to many wide-open three's", said Wellsville-Middletown coach Steve Lasman when asked what the difference in the game was.
The Tigers were in the contest until the end and used a triple by Hunt and a pair of free throws by Ben Burton to keep it that way until they could work their way back to Mayes for their next three scores. After that it became a rush to the charity stripe that began at 2:07 of the fourth and just kept happening. Even though the Mustangs couldn't quite put Wellsville-Middletown away, the ensuing opportunities simply weren't falling, and now it's the other side that'll face Jefferson City on March 8 in Springfield.
"This is not what we wanted. What we wanted was to win and go to the state tournament," said Burton, a senior. "It didn't happen that way, but (our playoff run was about) everybody playing as a team and everybody contributing. We carried each other, but we just didn't get the job done. I played with a bunch of great guys for four years. It was a lot of fun and I'm sad it's over."