Three Rivers' leading man looked like his old self Saturday night, making one play after another to help the Raiders beat region rival Mineral Area 90-78 at the Black River Coliseum.
Tipler has been slowed by a nagging knee injury this season and sat out Three Rivers' last game on Monday, but the region's top playmaker was up to his old tricks against the Cardinals. He scored 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 10 assists to just miss his second career triple-double. His first came against Mineral Area in last year's triple-overtime region championship game.
"It kind of bothered me a little bit, but right now we're in the point of the season that I can't let it hold me back," Tipler said of the tendinitis in his left knee. "I just try to go out and play hard, and I think I played pretty hard tonight."
Raiders coach Gene Bess was certainly impressed.
"He looks like the Dereke of old," Bess said. "I have a feeling if he can compete like this, we can be in the mix."
Behind Tipler's playmaking and hot shooting from Matt Gibson and C.J. Hadley, Three Rivers won the conference title by sweeping the season series from the Cardinals. Although the win didn't help the Raiders (17-11, 4-4) in the league standings -- they were locked into the region tournament's third seed regardless of the outcome -- it gave them some much-needed momentum as the postseason approaches.
Three Rivers has one remaining home game next weekend before facing SMSU-West Plains, a team it lost to twice this season, at Rolla.
"When people help contribute to scoring and if (Danijel) Zoric can stay out of foul trouble, I think we still have a legitimate shot of going to Hutch," Gibson said. "Don't count us out yet."
Gibson led four players in double figures with 34 points. Forward Chris Carr scored 14 and Hadley added 12 for Three Rivers.
The Raiders led by nine at the half, but Mineral Area (16-11, 1-6) came storming back. The Cardinals cut the deficit to five on J.T. Williams' layin with 11:38 left, then got within two on a Chris Springer basket at the 9:30 mark. But Three Rivers had an answer from the outside. Hadley connected from the left wing, then followed a Springer trey with another 3 from the left corner. Kgomotso Sefolosha pulled the Cardinals within two at the 9:30 mark, but Gibson and Hadley each hit from downtown on consecutive possessions to push the Raiders' lead to eight.
Gibson was 5-of-9 from downtown and Hadley made four of his seven attempts for Three Rivers, which was a combined 10-for-21 from long distance.
"Hadley's 3s are so critical. When he hits big 3s we've played a lot better," Bess said. "I felt like without question we were all right offensively tonight."
Mineral Area again got within two with 4:25 left, but Tipler knocked down a 17-foot jumper on the other end. After a David Bryant free throw made it a three-point game, Carr, Tipler and Gibson scored on consecutive possessions as Three Rivers closed the game on an 11-4 run.
"It's definitely a big game because they're one of our biggest rivals and have been for the past so many years," Carr said. "This game is a big game no matter what it's for."
Three Rivers shot a sizzling 56.7 percent from the field in the second half and it needed every one of those baskets.
Behind 250-pound forward Lorenzo Gordon, the Cardinals dominated the interior. They outrebounded Three Rivers 39-22. Gordon did a majority of that damage, scoring 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting and grabbing 16 rebounds.
"That Gordon is a load and they do a good job of getting the ball inside to him. He had almost as many rebounds as our entire team," Bess said. "We got outrebounded 2-to-1, which is kind of hard to take. We have to learn to how to halfway rebound or we're not going to beat anybody from now on."
Part of the problem was the Raiders' substitution of speed for size in the starting lineup. They inserted freshman Nick Covington alongside Tipler and Gibson, giving Three Rivers a three-guard lineup. It worked early as the Raiders scored 13 of the game's first 17 points and led by nine when Covington buried a 3-pointer from the right wing.
Mineral Area cut the deficit to one on back-to-back baskets from Bryant, but Gibson responded with a baseline jumper and consecutive 3-pointers to make it 28-19. The Raiders led by as many as 13 points when Gibson knocked down another jumper with 4:10 left in the half.
"I'm pretty happy with how we came out," Tipler said. "We came out energetic and with a lot of intensity. We kind of let up on them, but we fought it out until the end."
Gordon didn't get his first field goal until the 3:54 mark of the first half. But he got three more in the next few minutes as Mineral Area closed the half on an 8-3 run to get within nine.
Springer scored 17 and Bryant had 16 for Mineral Area, which shot 48.3 percent. The Cardinals were 4-of-13 from long distance.
Derrell Minner had five points and seven rebounds for the Raiders. Gibson had four steals.
"I think in the second half we came out a little lackadaisical thinking they were going to give up, but they came back, fought hard and made it a close game," Gibson said. "We appreciate their effort."