Since time immemorial, Linn County had not advanced to a state quarterfinal game. That half century of strife was righted on Tuesday night.
The Mustangs have not been this far since they finished fourth in the 1967 Class S state tournament.
In its Class 1 sectional game on Tuesday night in Chillicothe, Linn County shocked Slater by giving it a taste of its own medicine.
The Mustangs erased a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat the Wildcats, 60-58. Slater, three nights prior, trailed by 11 points with four minutes remaining in the Class 1 District 11 championship versus Meadville before mounting a 13-0 run to close the game. On Tuesday, the Wildcats allowed 23 points in the final period, and 12 in the last three-plus minutes.
Throughout the game, Slater's athletic 3-2 zone anchored by 6-foot-5, 250 pound sophomore Jakobie Breshears gave the Mustangs fits. Linn County's experienced group finally figured it out when it most needed it.
"These kids don't give up," Linn County coach Jason White said. "They keep playing hard and the experience is huge. These guys have been here, and two years ago (in the sectional game versus Meadville), we folded and started jacking threes. Tonight, we took the ball to the hole, and that's where our strength is. How many stops did we get when we needed them? That's huge for us. You can't say enough about these kids. They believe in each other."
The Mustangs never led by more than three, and they did not manage that until just 25 seconds remained in the game. They bore the burden of as much as a 12 point deficit in the third quarter.
The Mustangs and Wildcats exchanged blows in the first quarter, ending the first period deadlocked at 14 points apiece. Two minutes into the second, after Linn County sophomore Cody Murrell hit his second three-pointer of the half to take a 19-18 lead, the Mustangs were silenced. Much like Linn County did to La Plata in the District 12 championship, Slater went on a hemorrhaging run at the end of the half and built a 30-19 lead. Senior Mustang forward Chadley Waltz hit a three-pointer with 1:25 remaining in the second, and Linn County entered the halftime break trailing 32-24.
The two teams exchanged a number of buckets to begin the second half with no momentum lost or gained. Near the end of the third, things looked bleak for the Mustangs when Waltz' fourth foul resulted in Slater taking a 12-point lead with a pair of free throws. Waltz, the only true post for the Mustangs, fouled out midway through the fourth quarter.
Linn County, the visitor on the scoreboard, took a 10-point deficit into the fourth quarter.
With 5:53 remaining in the game, Slater head coach Dillon Yung burned a timeout after Michael O'Kane's put-back on a missed Jase White free throw brought the game to 48-42.
On the next trip down the court, senior Kade Ward knocked down a three-pointer to bring his team back within three at 48-45. Slater's Brody Jacobson hit a three on the following possession to bring the lead back to six, but not to be outdone, Jase White nailed one of his own from beyond the left elbow with 4:15 remaining.
"From that point on, after we hit those two shots, we knew the game was ours if we just outworked them," Ward said. "We wore them down on defense, and then on offense we pushed them. They don't like to run very much, and we made them run with us because that's how we love to play. We made smart passes down the stretch, and we didn't do that earlier in the game. It's a big moment in all of our lives."
With 2:10 showing on the clock, after Jase White again missed the back end of a one-and-one, O'Kane recorded a backcourt steal and tied the game at 53-53. The Linn County crowd rose to a fever pitch 30 seconds later when Jacobson fouled out bumping Jase White on a three-point attempt.
Jase White went just one-of-three, but it gave his side a one-point lead -- a position Linn County had not enjoyed since the opening bucket of the second quarter.
Slater laid in a put-back on the following possession, and an ensuing Jase White layup with a minute left gave Linn County a 56-55 lead. The Mustangs never trailed again.
Linn County recovered a rebound, and Murrell was fouled in the backcourt. The sophomore hit the two biggest free throws of his young life to give Linn County a 58-55 lead with 25 seconds remaining. Slater's Chandler Zdybel railed a three-pointer with 16 seconds remaining to tie the game, and Linn County used a timeout to get one final look.
With six seconds remaining, O'Kane drove from the right wing and splashed a 10-foot floater. Slater called a timeout with four seconds showing on the clock.
The following inbound pass was heaved up the court and stolen by Murrell. Slater failed to foul as the clock rolled to zeroes.
"Drive and kick, drive and kick," Murrell said about his team's fourth-quarter rally. "That's what we preached upon, and that started working. That's what we live off of, and we played with heart. Heart was the biggest thing tonight.
"We ran our pick-and-roll efficiently, and we knew that once we got it down low, Jase would do work. We attacked that zone, grinded down low the whole time, and made their big guys play conservatively. We have to tell ourselves to keep it simple sometimes."
Jase White led the Mustangs with 26 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter after moving to the post following Waltz' foul dilemma. Waltz finished with 15, scoring nine in the third before picking up his fourth foul. Murrell and O'Kane both posted eight, and Ward's late three was his only dent in the scorebook.
Slater's balanced scoring attack came from Chandler Zdybel with 16 points, Aden Campbell with 13, and Jacobson with 12. Hulking big men Breshears and Latrell Johnson finished with six points apiece, and Keegan Zdybel had five.
Slater, winner of the sectional last season with a victory over Green City, ends its season with a 21-6 record.
Linn County advances to 17-7 with the victory, and it will play Wellsville for the state quarterfinal in Salisbury on Saturday at 1 p.m. Wellsville enters the game a meager 13-13.
"As a coach, this is my sweetest win ever," Jason White said. "There are a few that stick out, but they're a distant second."