Late Night with the Hillcats.
It was quite a show.
At 11:03 on Valentine’s Night, in the final hour of a day dedicated to love, the Rogers State Hillcats broke the hearts of the USAO Drovers.
The Hillcats slapped the Drovers in the face, using an 84-79 victory to sufficiently end a relationship that had endured 45 minutes of intense, physical activity.
And then the Hillcats found themselves alone.
The Hillcats, with six straight conquests in their little scorebook, are alone — in fourth place in the Sooner Athletic Conference.
And that is a heartwarming place to be following five full hours of basketball in the Claremore Expo Thursday night.
After the Rogers State women went through two overtime sessions, the RSU men took their game into an extra five minutes.
The Hillcats lost all of a 13-point first half lead, and wasted a four-point lead in the final two minutes of regulation, before ultimately kissing off the Drovers in overtime.
In their first season of intercollegiate competition, the Hillcats have clawed their way into the upper echelon of the best conference in the NAIA.
The Hillcats are fourth in the 12-team SAC, behind the nationally ranked likes of Southern Nazarene and Oklahoma City University, and Wayland Baptist, which they defeated last weekend.
To reach that lofty rung, to extend the longest current winning streak in the conference, the Hillcats had to call out their cast of playmakers.
* Chris Francis hit a 3-pointer to open a 77-73 lead two minutes into the overtime, and a minute later, collected an offensive rebound and chalked up a free throw to stave off the Drovers.
* Abe Donlon and Roderick Rodgers teamed up for a pitch-and-catch fast break with 1:35 remaining that essentially did in the Drovers.
“Once we got to overtime, our guys just committed on the defensive end of the floor to get stops, and then go get the rebounds,” RSU coach Wren Baker said.
It was a game of wills, a game of strength.
“They’ve got a lot of athletes. We’ve got a lot of athletes,” Baker said.
“Any time you’ve got two very athletic teams going at each other, the game tends to be hard-fought; tends to be physical. And that was a physical game.”
It was an evenly matched game.
Each team was whistled for 24 personal fouls. RSU converted 21 of 35 free throws, while USAO counted 22 of 32.
RSU began to see its 13-point lead evaporate in the final 1:39 of the first half. USAO scored the last seven points of the half, cutting the deficit to 41-36.
In the first 90 seconds of the second half, the Drovers went ahead, 42-41, for the first time since midway of the opening period.
Even though the Hillcats regrouped and moved back in front by as much as six, USAO quickly turned the tables and reclaimed control.
Four times in the final 13 minutes, the score was tied, including the 73-all count that dictated overtime. Six times in that span, the lead changed hands.
Francis gave RSU a 67-61 lead at 5:30 on a 3-pointer from the corner. Even after USAO moved back in front, Donlon hit a trey from the top of the circle for a 71-69 Hillcat advantage at 2:46.
Eli Flores made a pair of free throws with 40 seconds left to knot the score at 73.
The Hillcats worked dutifully for an open shot until Francis found just what he was looking for with 10 seconds showing. He missed, and the Drovers rebounded.
They set up their final shot, but Dexter Williams’ layup with a second left went astray and Rodgers rebounded for the Hillcats.
In the overtime, Francis accounted for four points, while Donlon and Rodgers teamed up for the play of the game.
Clinging to an 80-78 lead, thanks to Francis’ free throw at 1:59, the Hillcats were perfectly prepared for the Drovers’ next challenge.
Some 19 feet from the basket, Rodgers blocked a shot in front of the USAO bench, and the ball sailed directly into the hands of the 6-9 Donlon.
Rodgers had taken off for the other end of the floor when Donlon launched a rocket of a pass. It found the streaking Rodgers right on target, and he laid the ball in for a four-point cushion with 1:35 left.
That broke the Drovers’ spirit. They could only find a free throw the rest of the way.
Donlon downed a free throw with 14 seconds showing and Bryson Krueger intercepted USAO’s inbounds pass and added his own free throw two seconds later.
It was all over at that point.
Notes ... This was RSU’s first overtime game ...
USAO, which defeated the Hillcats, 70-60, in Chickasha a month ago, suffered its second straight loss ...
Krueger, the Hillcats’ leading scorer on the season at 12.5 points, finished with 21. Sylvester Spicer added 17 ...
Aldric Reynolds pocketed five of the Hillcats’ 10 steals, and was credited with eight assists ...
Rodgers and Donlon each had eight rebounds ...
RSU opened the season with five wins in a row, and has now gone that little streak one better ...
RSU now awaits Southern Nazarene, No. 11 in the NAIA rankings. SNU, which bounced the Hillcats, 96-70, in Bethany last month, will be in town Saturday night. The Crimson Storm has won four in a row.
“They will be the best team that we’ve played,” Baker said. “They’re the highest-ranked team we’ve played.” ...
RSU hit 43 percent of its 3-point shots (9 of 21). Donlon made 3 of 5, and Francis 3 of 6 ...
Each team had 35 rebounds.
RSU 84, USAO 79
USAO 36 37 6 — 79
Rogers State 41 32 11 — 84
USAO — Nelson 22, Flores 16, Williams 13, Alexander 11, Woods 7, Parra 6, Harris 4.
Rogers State — Krueger 21, Spicer 17, Donlon 14, Francis 12, Rodgers 9, Reynolds 6, Young 3, Dearinger 2.