MADILL — As the student section of Madill frenetically rushed onto the court, its euphoria drowned out the relief of Madill coach Aaron George.
And in the aftermath of a 57-54 victory, one in which his Wildcats clinched a Lake Country Conference title, it wasn't hard to understand why.
Madill had led for almost three quarters against a powerful Plainview squad. At times, the Wildcats (16-7) almost seemed to toy with Deric Shelton and the Indians (19-4), knocking down shot after shot while anything and everything Plainview tried failed to work.
At the half, the more optimistic Wildcats may even have felt the game was in the bag as Madill headed to the locker room with a 32-21 lead.
"(Plainview is a bunch of) competitors, and I told my guys at the half that they would make a run," George said. "It wasn't a quick run, but they made one."
Plainview dug in and refused to quit, crawling back from its deficit a little at a time.
Shelton, who had been bottled up with just seven points in the first half, exploded in the third, picking up eight points that pulled Plainview back to within seven by the end of the frame.
Madill refocused its defense on Shelton, and it opened up opportunities for the rest of the Indians, who began knocking down 3-pointers, headlined by two each from Talor Stewart and Nick Heller, to close the gap.
But at every step of the way, Madill was there to match. Four Wildcats ended the game with double-digit points, paced by Ivan Flores' 14.
"That's what I preach, team basketball," George said. "And those guys went out there and did it."
The end was a thriller worthy of a championship — fitting for a contest between the top two teams in the LCC this season.
After Shelton's 20th point had secured Plainview's first lead since the end of the first quarter at 54-53 with under a minute left, Flores aggressively drove to the basket, drawing a foul, and nailing his two free throws to regain the lead. On the ensuing Indians possession, a missed shot allowed Samuel Bond to create a fast break on the rebound, slamming home a thunderous dunk that gave Madill the final margin with 19.4 seconds left.
Plainview would get two shots at a final 3, with both coming up short.
For Madill, it was a resounding way to finish the season. The Wildcats topped Sulphur and Plainview in back-to-back contests, and with the Bulldogs' 59-55 overtime loss to Kingston, secured the LCC title for themselves.
The Wildcats also secured a great deal of momentum heading into the playoffs.
"We've just got to keep the foot on the gas pedal, and hopefully we can carry this into the season that counts," George said. "We're thankful and everything lined up for us.
Page 2 of 2 - "Playing hard pays off."