This night belonged to second-year coach Trenton Dickinson and his second-seeded Wildcats, who claimed their first boys basketball district championship in 25 years. Cassville last played in a district final back in 1996.
The Wildcats won with the same patient, hard-nosed approach they used against McDonald County in Friday's semifinal. The entire first quarter was a 13-2 Cassville run as Aurora went scoreless for the final 5:30 of the period.
Ricky Nichols wowed the crowd with his behind-the-back flip to Evan Stubblefield in the lane that resulted in a 9-2 Wildcat lead at the 1:59 mark. Then Josh Lewright whirled and sank a baseline jumper as the clock expired to give Cassville the 13-2 advantage.
Aurora trailed top-seeded Carl Junction by that same 13-2 score in their semifinal game on Friday. Just like they did against Carl Junction, the Houn's recovered from their first-period woes. Aurora outscored the Wildcats 18-8 in the second period as Cassville self-destructed at the free-throw line.
Marshall Basham's trey pulled Aurora within 21-17 with 2:16 left in the half. Then Cassville shooters missed five consecutive free throws in the final 2:03, including the front end of three bonus opportunities. Aurora missed three of four shots from the line in the final 1:39, costing the Houn's a chance at the lead.
Then Cassville's Lewright protected the 21-20 lead, blocking Aaron Cox's corner trey attempt at the buzzer.
The third quarter opened with neither team in scoring mode. Joel Maher followed his own miss, was fouled by Aurora's Basham and sank both free throws to give Cassville a 23-20 lead.
Axl Larson, Cassville's three-point assassin, hit perhaps the biggest shot of his career, nailing a long three from the top of the arc to give his Wildcats a 26-21 lead with 4:38 on the clock before halftime.
"I was excited to hit the three," said Larson, "but my focus was on getting back on defense, because that's where we win games."
The bomb from Larson fueled an 8-1 Cassville run that left the Wildcats out in front, 29-21. But back came Aurora.
Back-to-back jacks by Cox and Tanner Kasinger cut the Cassville lead to 29-27. Then Cox converted one of two at the line to pull Aurora within a point in the final minute. Lewright answered for Cassville, going strong to the rim from the baseline, and drawing a foul from Clayton Sumners. The Wildcat senior completed the three-point play to give Cassville a 32-28 lead at the final break.
After conceding the first quarter, Aurora had become the aggressor in this game. In a game where neither team would score 20 points in any given quarter, the Houn's rallied after every Cassville run. But the 'Cats stymied every rally, and Aurora entered the final period without a lead since the 2-0 opening bucket, or even a tie since the 5:30 mark of the first period.
Aurora applied full court pressure to start the fourth quarter, hoping to rush the Wildcats out of their comfort zone. The result was a steady diet of press breaker layups from Cassville as Nichols directed the offense.
Twice the lead reached nine points, but Aurora answered both times with scores. With Cassville leading 44-36, a Nichols' driving shot was blocked, but Lewright speared it out of midair in the lane. He powered for the layup, drew the late foul, and his true free throw created the first double digit lead since the first quarter.
Aurora would draw no closer than 10 from that point on. The tiring Houn's shot only three of eight from the foul line in the closing minutes, and Cassville made shots and ran clock as the game came to a close.
It was an emotional and satisfying moment for both the Wildcats and their coach at game's end. Cassville only won five games a year ago, although they tasted a first-round district tournament victory before bowing out of the postseason. The rebuilding job that Dickinson began when he entered the Big 8 pressure cooker from Pierce City is right on track.
The Wildcats improved to 17-9 with the victory over Aurora, and will play Hillcrest in a Class 4 sectional game at Missouri Southern State University tonight (Wednesday) at 6 p.m.
The Hornets captured the Class 5 state championship last year before moving down to Class 4 for this season. Hillcrest defeated Logan-Rogersville 53-46 in the District 11 title game on Saturday behind Dorial Green-Beckham's 22-point performance.
Cassville scorers: Axl Larson, 13; Josh Lewright, 12; Evan Stubblefield, 10; Ricky Nichols, 6; Chris Smith, 6; and Joel Maher, 4.
Aurora scorers: Tanner Kasinger, 13; Aaron Cox, 9; Jordan Fronabarger, 6; Marshall Basham, 5; Joshua Myers, 3; and Andrew Parker, 2.