MURRAY - For the first time in their three meetings this season, McCracken County was able to score more than 54 points against Calloway County. Barely.
However, the Mustangs defense got tough early and held on late for the 55-48 victory in the opening game of the First Region boys basketball tournament at Murray State's CFSB Center. McCracken failed to beat the Lakers in two previous games, losing the program's first-ever game 57-54 in Calloway on Dec. 10, then falling 56-54 at home on Jan. 4.
The sports cliche says it is tough to beat a team three times in a season, and Mustangs coach Burlin Brower knew what it would take to keep that saying true.
"We got the lead early and made our free throws late," Brower said after the game, "In that first game, we didn't make our free throws. We did a better job defending Michael Arnett down low. He hurt us both games earlier in the season."
Arnett was limited to eight points in his final game in a Laker uniform. The Mustangs hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter, including a buzzer-beater from Caleb Stonecipher, to go up 17-12 after that period. The Lakers got to within three at the half, but McCracken exploded in the third.
The Mustangs scored the first seven points of the second half, five of those from Kam Chumbler, to grab the first double-digit lead of the game at 35-25. Both teams traded baskets and foul shots the rest of the period with McCracken up 43-33 entering the fourth quarter.
In that final frame, the Mustangs failed to hit a single field goal. With several Lakers making their shots, Calloway narrowed the gap to 48-46 with just over two minutes to go.
"We tried to get to the rim, but we couldn't," Brower said of his squad in the fourth. "We ended up getting fouled and we made our free throws."
McCracken was 6 for 11 from the foul line at a late point in the fourth, but was 6 for 8 in the final minute of play. Sergio Vega was 3 for 4 from the charity stripe in that finishing stretch.
Chumbler led the Mustangs with 14 points, while Bryce Rodgers added 13. Parker Adams topped Calloway with 14 points, and Skyler Hunter had 13. McCracken will face Graves County, a 57-37 win over Carlisle County in Saturday's second game, in Monday's first semifinal. The Mustangs have defeated the defending region champs twice season, but Brower knows that will not matter come Monday.
"I think Graves is saying the same thing we said," Brower said. "There's a team you've already beaten twice, and it's hard to win three times."
Calloway County 12 25 33 48
McCracken County 17 28 43 55
CALLOWAY COUNTY - Carter, Adams 14, Smotherman 3, Smith, Fraher, Hunter 13, Wagner 10, Crady, Arnett 8.
Field goals 18/50. 3-pointers 3/9 (Hunter 2, Smotherman). Free throws 9/13. Record 19-9.
McCRACKEN COUNTY - Burnett 10, Chumbler 14, Armstrong 2, Telfair 6, Stonecipher 6, Vega 4, Hayden, Nall, Rodgers 13, Weir.
Field goals 15/31. 3-pointers 5/10 (Chumbler 2, Stonecipher 2, Burnett). Free throws 20/32. Record 22-8.
Contact Jon Futrell, a Paducah Sun sports writer, at 270-575-8664.