For the first time in a decade, the Meadville Eagles did not come home with the Northwestern Invitational Tournament championship trophy.
Linn County avenged last year's sectional loss to Meadville, 57-53, to earn the hardware in Mendon for the first time since most of its athletes were in short pants. Linn County won the championship in back-to-back years in 2003 and 2004 and had not done so since until Saturday night in front of an energized, often raucous crowd.
"We've got to do a better job of being a threat to score," Meadville coach Drew Nier said. "There were times we looked complacent. I've got to do a better job of putting my kids in position to be successful, and there were times we were disengaged."
Meadville controlled the game early, and took a 17-11 lead at the end of the first quarter as the two teams were feeling one another out. Linn County built slight momentum in the second, and outscored the Eagles 10-7 in the second eight minutes of play to narrow the Meadville lead to 24-21 at the half.
In the early stages of the second half, Linn County seized total control of the ballgame, using a 13-0 run out of the locker room to take a 37-27 lead late in the third quarter. Linn County junior Jase White was brilliant in that period, scoring 10 of his game-high 23 points and adding two steals and a pivotal assist to Kade Ward in the corner for an uncontested transition three-pointer. Ward was his team's only other scorer in double-figures, finishing with 17.
"I know my guys can shoot, and I knew if I got them open, they'd find it," Jase White said. "We came together in that third quarter, making good passes and getting rebounds. We took charge early in the second half and set the tone. We found what we had been looking for in the first half."
Meadville was able to get its feet back underneath it after scoring just 13 points in the middle two quarters, opening the fourth with a casual 10-5 run keyed by back-to-back layups from Parker Burton followed by a three-pointer from Dillon Seckington. Seckington's 19 points was a team-high, and Jase Cowan was close behind with 16. Burton finished with 11.
After cutting the deficit to 45-43, Meadville gave up seven of the game's next nine points, and with two minutes remaining, Linn County led 52-45.
The Eagles still had a thing or two to say about that before it was all said and done.
Another Seckington three-pointer with 1:05 remaining cut the Linn County lead to just 52-50, and following a Linn County travel a few possessions later, the 6'4" junior earned a trip to the line for a pair. He missed the front end, but made the second to bring his team back within one, 54-53. On the ensuing Linn County possession, Ward hit the last of his five three-pointers with 30 seconds remaining to bring the Mustang faithful to a fever pitch and give the game its final score.
"Our game is a little bit faster than what we played in that first half, and at halftime, that was our talk," Linn County coach Jason White said. "We needed to get back to playing our speed instead of playing at their speed. We got the ball moving up and down, got some momentum, and these guys can score some points when they're feeling it. Down the stretch, we hit some big threes when we needed to.
"Linn County boys tonight came out in the second half on a mission. A big win like this early in the season can take us a long way."