The Linn County boys' basketball team advanced to the district championship on Tuesday night in a game every bit deserving of the overtime period it required.
Linn County defeated Green City, 72-68, in a Class 1 District 12 semifinal game between two teams that know each other well. Linn County had lost both of the past two match-ups by a single point, once in Green City last week and once in Purdin last season in the district championship. The season prior, the Mustangs won by three in the district semifinals.
For those following that long-standing narrative, Tuesday night's game in Purdin did not disappoint. Linn County's home-court advantage did not feel like much of one, as the ardent Green City fanbase packed the southwest corner of the gymnasium seats.
Green City senior Devin Fields came out blisteringly hot, and the Mustangs had a hard time cooling the Gophers' all-time scoring leader all night. Fields began the game 4-for-4 from three-point range on the team's opening possessions, and Green City held a 16-4 lead less than four minutes into the game. Fields eventually finished with 43 points.
The Mustangs were able to cut the lead to 21-18 by the end of the first quarter, and trailed just 29-28 at the halftime break with the help of some key offensive rebounds.
Linn County uncharacteristically shot poorly from beyond the arc on Tuesday night, but countless offensive rebounds allowed three-point attempts and missed free throws to act almost as entry passes into the low block.
"The Fields kid is a fantastic scorer, but I refused to call a timeout until we had a couple buckets," Linn County coach Jason White said. "I let them play it out a little bit, and then we got the inside-out going, and that was the difference.
"We just worked hard down low, and we knew what we could and couldn't do against them. We played them a week ago, so a lot of what they did was still fresh. They started out on fire, but we attacked the basket and wanted rebounds. For a lot of kids on this team, it's they're senior year, and they showed that hunger to keep going. This particular group of kids is ready to get back on the floor."
For the first time since zeroes, Linn County tied it up at 29-29 early in the third quarter before taking a 31-29 lead. From that point onward, the game featured 11 lead changes and three ties before finally entering overtime at 56-apiece after the Mustangs failed to get a quality look on the final possession.
In the three-minute bonus period, Linn County senior Kade Ward drained one of his three three-pointers on the opening possession. Fellow senior Jase White converted a layup on the following trip down the court to take a five-point lead, and a few possessions later, junior Michael O'Kane went 2-for-2 from the line to extend the Linn County lead to seven -- the largest lead for either team since Green City led by five for one possession early in the fourth quarter.
From that point onward, the Mustangs simply needed to knock down their free throws.
Jase White said that he knew he and his fellow seniors were on the same page down the final stretch, even with such a gifted scorer on the opposite team.
"We knew they were going to foul, and we knew we had to contest," Jase White said. "We had to keep them limited and make them take tough shots.
"We have guys that know what we need to do. When we're not hitting shots, we know we can do other things. We're more than just scorers -- we can move the ball and we can rebound. We haven't been rebounding well this season, so I'm proud of my guys tonight. We know the job ain't done, but we're happy with this win tonight."
Jase White's 20 points was a team-high. O'Kane finished with 17 points, including knocking down five of his six free-throw attempts in overtime. Ward finished with 13 points, sophomore Cody Murrell and senior Chadley Waltz had eight despite his fouling out, and senior Caleb Schreiner finished with six.
For Green City, Fields got help from Chris Barto's 12 points, Michael Hall's seven, and Laydon Fields' pair of three-pointers.
"I told our boys that they couldn't play any harder," Green City coach Donnie Fields said. "They left it all out on the court. (Linn County) has been a team that, even since our guys were little, you knew someone would win by one or win on a last-second shot. We just came up a little short.
"Their guys were super physical on the offensive end, and if you get a knee into our hind-end, you can move my kids pretty easily. They did a great job with that."
Again on Friday night, when Linn County hosts top-seeded La Plata for the district title, the Mustangs will be no stranger to a team with whom every game is a slog until the final buzzer.
The two have never faced in the postseason as La Plata dropped down from Class 2 this year, but a home overtime loss to the Bulldogs' in January is still on the Mustangs' mind.
La Plata enters the game 22-5, while Tuesday's win improves the Mustangs to 12-7.