PARK HILLS -- The region's leading scorer bounced up and down, pumping his fist as shot after shot ripped through the net.
No, it wasn't Mineral Area's Lorenzo Gordon doing the celebrating. It was Three Rivers guard Matt Gibson, who had reason to be excited as he led the Raiders to an improbable win.
Three Rivers, which has been humbled, humiliated and flat-out embarrassed at times this year, opened the most important of the season with a bang Saturday night by grinding out an 86-81 road victory against Mineral Area in the Region XVI opener for both teams.
"It was stay alive or be dead," freshman center Danijel Zoric said. "We have heart and we can play basketball, and we proved that."
Gibson was the difference-maker in this one, splashing in one big 3 after another and converting several tough drives to the basket. The freshman guard from Oklahoma City, Okla., finished with a career-high 34 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-7 from downtown.
"We came out and played harder than we've ever played," said Gibson, who was also 7-for-8 at the free-throw line. "It might have been the crowd, it might have been the preparation, it might have been losing that other game and coach chewing our butts out. It was something because we played hard the whole time. We didn't quit."
The Raiders, sporting a mediocre record and reeling from a tough loss just two days earlier, weren't given much of a chance against their arch rivals. The Cardinals were coming off an impressive 29-point victory against Southwestern Illinois -- a team that beat Three Rivers -- and the Raiders had lost their previous two trips to Park Hills by a combined 32 points.
But the numbers didn't hold true in this one. Three Rivers (12-7, 1-0 Region XVI) raced out to a 16-point first-half lead and held off a late Mineral Area charge. Three times the Cardinals cut the deficit to one in the final five minutes, but all three times the Raiders had an answer. The last -- a clutch Leonard Bishop Jr. 3-pointer from the right corner with 1:01 to go -- put the finishing touches on MAC.
"I felt like our psyche was a little fragile and to come in here and lose, I don't know what it would do," Three Rivers coach Gene Bess said. "I know we've got a lot of room for improvement and we have a pretty good idea of what we've got to do to get better, but boy, this was a big win."
C.J. Hadley had 16 points and a career-high nine rebounds for the Raiders, who led 43-31 at the half.
Nick Covington added 11 points and eight assists. Three Rivers was outrebounded 42-36, but the Raiders shot a better percentage from the field and line while committing four few turnovers.
Kgomotso Sefolosha scored 15 and Portageville product J.T. Williams had 12 points and 15 rebounds for the Cardinals, who hurt themselves by going 22-for-41 at the free-throw line. Zoric harassed Gordon, arguably the region's best post player, into 14 points and nine rebounds -- both below his season averages of 21.2 and 11.2.
"It was personal," Zoric said. "He's the best scorer and best rebounder in the whole region and I think I did a pretty good job. Not perfect, I can always do better."
Unlike Thursday's loss at Arkansas-Fort Smith, Three Rivers worked from the inside-out offensively.
The Raiders had success dumping the ball inside to Zoric, who passed out of double-teams to open shooters.
Three Rivers was 10-for-23 from downtown and Zoric had a career-high seven assists.
"Everything was going from Steve (Deken) and me," Zoric said. "We were playing inside-outside and we have to play like that or we'll have problems. We had open shots and I think it's time we hit something."
The Raiders, who were held scoreless the first 4:03 of the game, began pulling away with Gordon on the bench. Hadley connected from downtown and Chris Carr knocked down a short baseline jumper as Three Rivers went ahead good.
Mineral Area (12-5, 0-1) trailed by just four before Gibson went to work.
The leading scorer in the state of Oklahoma last year, Gibson canned a 3 from the baseline, then stole the ball at halfcourt from Ryne Burne and scored to spark a 22-7 run. Hadley buried another trey during the spurt, Gibson converted a nifty spinning layin and Covington knocked down a 17-footer as Three Rivers went ahead 38-22.
Gibson is still learning defensively, but he's got the offensive end figured out. His 23.6 points per game easily lead the region.
"Matt had the hot hand tonight," Bess said. "He was big."
The Cardinals chipped away at the deficit with a 10-0 run to pull within four midway through the second half.
They got within a point at the 5:04 mark, but Derrell Minner converted a tough basket while being fouled on the other end to push the Raiders' lead back to four.
Mineral Area again cut it to one on a Gordon 3-point play and Williams free throw with 2:18 left, but Gibson was fouled on a drive to the basket and converted both free throws.
Mineral Area pulled within one for the last time when Gordon scored in traffic with just over a minute left, but Bishop answered with his biggest basket of the season.
"We've been humbled," Bess said. "I think the kids understand why they have to go inside with it and they understand why they have to guard and compete for 40 minutes because nothing is easy in this region.
"It's just going to come down to getting that killer instinct. We haven't quite got that yet, but I like the way we hung on tonight."