Halfway through Saturday afternoon's Class 1 quarterfinal game against the Wellsville-Middletown Tigers, the Linn County boys' basketball team found itself in a familiar position.
Just as it had in Tuesday's sectional-round game versus Slater, the Mustangs trailed by eight points entering the halftime break in Salisbury on Saturday. They overcame that deficit much quicker in the quarterfinal, however.
Linn County went on to defeat the Tigers 55-49 on Saturday. After senior guard Jase White hit a three-pointer as time expired in the third quarter to take a 34-33 lead, the Mustangs never trailed again.
Jase White was exceptional on Saturday, leading all scorers with 23 points and scoring at least five in each quarter.
Wellsville-Middletown came out white-hot in the first quarter, knocking down five three-pointers and taking a 20-11 lead into the second. Linn County shaved only a point from that lead entering halftime, and began the second half trailing 31-23. Shockingly, after that first period, the Tigers did not convert another three-point attempt for the remainder of the game.
"We knew that they weren't as strong of shooters as they looked like in the first quarter, so after they came out like that, we told each other to keep getting hands up and keep rebounding," Jase White said.
"We knew they couldn't keep making shots like they were, and we knew when we found our groove that would switch. They played good defense, but we even as much as we love to get out and run, we know finding open looks might take a while. We had to find that happy medium of playing fast and getting open looks."
The Mustangs quickly got to work to open the second half. Junior guard Michael O'Kane knocked down three-pointers on back-to-back possessions and forced Wellsville-Middletown to burn a timeout two minutes into the period. Linn County quickly tied the game at 31 before the Tigers scored their only two points of the third quarter to regain the lead. Jase White's three at the end of the period proved to be the most significant momentum shift for the Mustangs, and they channeled the crowd energy for the remainder of the game.
"I'll tell you what, when Michael O'Kane starts hitting threes, that's what we need," Linn County coach Jason White said. "When he gets going offensively, we can spread the floor. I expected him to step up and hit some huge shots for us tonight, and then we made the game ours."
Linn County's lead swelled to as large as five with 1:45 remaining in the fourth, and from that point on, Wellsville-Middletown coach Steve Lasman elected to foul quickly on each Linn County possession and force the Mustangs to win from the line.
The shots that his team had hit consistently in the first half simply refused to fall, and after the Tigers' Dennis Hunt converted an and-one with a little over a minute remaining to bring the game back within two, Linn County was solid enough from the line to ice the game.
"We had wide open shots in the second half, and they wouldn't drop -- what can you do?" Lasman pondered. "First half, they dropped, and in the second half, we couldn't drop a pebble in the ocean. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn't. We knew number 2 (Jase White) was the kid we had to stop, but he's a darn good ball player, and he set up his shooters while we missed on about every trip up the floor. Good luck to them, and they beat us fair and square, so best of luck to them at state."
The Mustangs were 10-of-15 from the line in the fourth quarter, and 14-of-22 for the game.
Behind Jase White, O'Kane finished with 12 points, and senior forward Chadley Waltz had 10, despite again finding himself in foul trouble. Senior wing Kade Ward posted seven points and Cody Murrell rounded the Mustangs' scoring with a layup and a free throw.
Wellsville-Middletown's Keaton Mayes led his team with 16 points, Mitchell Canterbury had 13, and Hunt mustered 11.
"For us, the biggest adjustment we made defensively was finding a way to get into their passing lanes," Jason White said. "These kids stepped up when we needed them to. (Wellsville-Middletown) was aggressive and quick, but we stuck to the game plan and struck when the time was right. We took all of those punches and still stayed calm."
Wellsville-Middletown's season ends under .500 at 13-14, although the Tigers played one of the most brutal Class 1 schedules in the state. The Tigers, out of the Eastern Missouri Conference, played 17 games against Class 2 and Class 3 schools. Their four-game winning streak beginning with the district opener was the team's longest of the season.
Linn County advances to 18-7, and will play Jefferson (Conception Jct.) in the state semifinal on Missouri State's campus in Springfield on Friday at 4:30 p.m. Jefferson enters the game 26-4 and defeated previously undefeated Winston in its quarterfinal.
If the Mustangs defeat Jefferson, they will play Saturday at 6:20 p.m. for the state title. If they lose, they will play for third place at 11 a.m. Saturday morning.