Ahead by five points late in the second half, the Raiders were threatening to become the first-ever three seed to win at Rolla. But they couldn't hold on, surrendering 11 unanswered points and eventually losing 100-93 to SMSU-West Plains Friday night in the semifinals of the Region XVI tournament.
In a season full of heartbreaking losses, this one fit the bill.
"That's been our story the whole time," freshman Matt Gibson said. "We played as hard as we could but whether it be injuries or our shooting, I guess tonight wasn't our night."
The loss closed the chapter on an up-and-down season that saw Three Rivers (18-12) struggle through a pair of three-game losing skids and lose three times at the Black River Coliseum -- a building where they were previously 39-1. The 12 losses are the third most in coach Gene Bess' 34-year tenure at the school.
Bess, who remained upbeat throughout a difficult season, did the same Friday.
"There are a lot of positive things around our program and life goes on," Bess said.
Point guard Dereke Tipler had 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals in an all-around performance typical of his two-year stay at Three Rivers.
Sophomore Derrell Minner also left in style with a career-high 16 points and nine rebounds. Chris Carr had seven rebounds in his final game and Steve Deken, playing with a soft cast on his broken left wrist, scored four points before fouling out.
West Plains, which swept the season series from the Raiders, scored 11 straight points to go ahead 89-83. Carr tipped in his own miss to pull Three Rivers within four and freshman Nick Covington knocked down his fourth 3-pointer to keep the Raiders within striking distance, but the Grizzlies got three straight free throws to go ahead by seven as they began pulling away.
"The season wasn't the way we wanted it to be," said Covington, one of seven freshmen eligible to return next season. "A lot of upsets and disappointments."
West Plains, which averaged 98 points on 56 percent shooting in the previous two matchups against Three Rivers, again had its way offensively. The Grizzlies shot 70 percent from the field in the second half to erase a one-point halftime deficit and were 6-for-14 from downtown.
Leading the offensive charge was swingman Terrell Everett, the region's player of the year who had another big game against Three Rivers. Despite going scoreless the first nine minutes of the game, Everett just missed a triple-double with 32 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
Everett made just 10-of-16 free throw attempts, but he was nearly flawless in every other category. He had his way with every defender the Raiders threw his way.
"He didn't even shoot it well and had that many?" Bess said. "I wasn't aware of that."
Gibson led the Raiders with 23 points and five steals in what might have been his final game at Three Rivers. Gibson, whose 25.8 scoring average is second on the school's single-season list, is being courted by several Division I schools, including Hawaii.
Covington had a career-high 18 points and seven assists.
Three Rivers' season never fully materialized from the beginning. Gibson was suspended the first semester for violating team rules, freshman Tony Webb broke his foot after playing in just two games and Tipler missed 12 games with tendinitis.
The Raiders, who were without freshman center Danijel Zoric Friday, didn't play one game this season with their entire roster. But that was just the start of the problems.
"We haven't had that good team spirit this year," Bess said. "From Day 1 we've had so many obstacles to overcome -- injuries and putting someone down for a semester. There were too many negatives attached. It wasn't one of those years where you knew everybody was on the same page."
The Raiders appeared to be together against the Grizzlies (24-7). They scored 12 of the game's first 16 points to reverse the trend of the previous two matchups that saw Three Rivers twice fall behind by 22 points.
West Plains took a brief lead on consecutive jumpers from freshman Brandon Kimbrough, but Covington found Minner under the basket just before halftime to give the Raiders a 46-45 lead.
The Grizzlies began to take control with a 12-0 run that gave them a 64-54 lead with 15:18 left, but Three Rivers wouldn't go away. Gibson converted a 3-point play and Covington knocked down consecutive 3s to pull the Raiders within one. Following a Grizzlies timeout, Covington hit C.J. Hadley streaking downcourt on a quick inbounds play to give Three Rivers a 69-68 lead.
"I didn't feel like we really ever took control," Covington said. "It seemed like we were trying to hold our lead instead of pushing it out."
After falling behind by five, the Grizzlies went to a matchup zone that smothered Three Rivers' perimeter players. The strategy worked as they held Three Rivers scoreless for four minutes as they surged ahead.
"I think they had that zone in their arsenal the whole time," Gibson said. "We didn't handle it well."
Parker scored 19 and Kimbrough added 14 for West Plains, which outscored Three Rivers 22-10 the final 7:22.
Hadley scored eight points for the Raiders.