Like recent games against Blytheville, Ark., and Massac County, Ill., the Eagles had a chance to pull out the upset, but came up short in the end.
"You kind of get to a point where you deserve to win one of those," said NMCC coach Scott Kruse. "I'm proud of my guys. I don't know if they realize the caliber of teams we've been playing. We've had a stretch here of four teams that are really, really, really on a different level, and we've competed in three of the four. The guys have done a great job of preparing in practice and working hard, and I think they are starting to believe in each other a little bit."
Cape Central improves to 13-3 and has now won nine of its last 10. The Tigers appeared to have the game under wraps with a minute left in regulation, holding a four point lead with Will Johnson at the free throw line.
Johnson missed both foul shots, but teammate Mitch Craft pulled down the rebound and made a quick pass to 6-foot-8 center Scott Chestnutt in the low post.
Chestnutt put it up and in to give Cape a 66-60 lead. NMCC quickly got the ball down the floor, and with 45 seconds left, sophomore Laterrance Newsom buried his third 3-pointer of the game to put the Eagles right back in the hunt at 66-63.
"He's going to be a good player," said Kruse. "He works hard in practice and wants to learn. That's the kind of kid you want to coach."
Cape Central bled the clock down to 30 seconds, then Vaughn Shepherd fouled Chestnutt, sending him to the free throw line. After he hit one of his two foul shots, NMCC point guard Malcom Long took the ball end-to-end, sinking an off-balance jump shot with 20 seconds left, shaving the lead down to 67-65.
It was just one of several big shots for the 5-foot-8 junior, who scored a team-high 18 with 10 coming in the fourth quarter.
"We didn't expect Malcom Long to shoot the ball like he did," said Cape Central coach Derek McCord. "He really stepped up and made some tough shots."
All NMCC hopes were squashed when Jake Knepp converted a conventional 3-point play with 15 seconds to go. Ryan Delph then came up with a steal and scored the game's final basket to give the Tigers a 72-65 victory.
"We really executed late in the game," said McCord. "We tried to raise our level of play at the end, and we had so many people step up. Jake Knepp was probably our player of the game."
Delph paced the Tigers with 20 on the night. Chestnutt finished with 19, Knepp had 13 and Craft contributed 10. "Ryan Delph really made some great moves off the dribble," said McCord. "What a leader. He's just a guaranteed double-double every night."
For NMCC, Shephard finished with 14 points and pulled down eight rebounds. He and teammate Edgar Givens were dominant on the boards early as the Eagles jumped out to a surprising 7-2 lead.
Cape Central was able to soften NMCC's zone defense with 3-pointers from Johnson and Chestnutt. The Tigers tied the game with 1:06 left in the first, but Newsom sank a desperation trey at the buzzer to give the Eagles a 17-14 lead.
Knepp and Delph added two more 3-pointers in the second quarter as Cape outscored the Eagles 17-13 in the frame, taking a 31-30 lead into the break.
On the night, the Tigers shot 7-of-10 from beyond the arc. "We've seen zone of some sort in every game we've played," said McCord. "I've been coaching for 15 years, and this is the first season where that has happened every single game. It's about time we started getting better at it. I thought we took shots against their zone and got good ball reversal."
The Tigers extended their lead to nine points in the third quarter, highlighted by a thunderous slam dunk by Chestnutt. The Eagles rallied in the fourth quarter, cutting the lead as close as two.
The loss drops the Eagles to 4-11 on the season. "We've had the ups and downs, and I know how (Kruse) feels," said McCord. "We lost in here two years ago -- a lot to a little. It's not fun being on the other side of that. He's going to turn the corner and get this going."
Cape Central ended up out-rebounding the Eagles 31-30. The Tigers will host Mehlville next Friday. NMCC will host Doniphan on Jan. 30.
"If we just keep working, we could have a nice last month to the season," said Kruse. "In these last five or six ballgames, we've done some good things. We're going to get rewarded for that eventually."