SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The best Monroe City boys basketball season in 25 years is over.
Monroe City was on the short end Friday night of a hard-hitting defensive battle with the high-flying Charleston Blue Jays, falling 51-49 in the semifinal game of the Class 3 Missouri Show-Me Showdown at JQH Arena on the campus of Missouri State University.
After three quarters of an even game, the Panthers could not fully recover from an 11-4 Charleston run at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Charleston held a 50-41 lead with 55 seconds left to play.
The Panthers mounted a furious comeback, thanks to a hot hand by Logan Buhlig who scored eight points in a row, including a dramatic three-point shot at the buzzer.
"We had to be in attack mode, being down as much as we were," Monroe City coach Brock Edris said of the final ticks of the clock. "We got a few stops and put pressure on them. But we fell short."
Though his team was deflated with the close loss, Edris said his players, who finished at 28-3, have no reason to hang their heads.
"Our guys competed against one of the best teams in the state," Edris said. "I felt like we proved Monroe City can compete with some of the best. Obviously, we would like to have some of the possessions back, but Charleston played a great game. I give them credit them with defensive intensity Two points short. They made out fans proud, they made this coaching staff proud."
It was a strange atmosphere inside 11,000-seat JQH Arena, as precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which by game time included two confirmed cases in Springfield, Mo., caused the Missouri State High School Activities Association to limit crowd to 150 fans from each team.
After each game, officials waited for fans to leave from the just-completed contest before allowing the supporters of teams playing in the successive game. Monroe City sold its allotment of 500 tickets within 24 hours before MSHSAA informed schools
On Friday, MSHSAA announced that it was also cancelling third-place games.
"It is unfortunate that a lot of people were not able to come here and support us. We would have had quite a crowd dressed in black and gold," Edris said. "They will definitely be proud when we get back home."
Charleston came into the game averaging more than 68 points a game, including two games where the Blue Jays scored more than 100 points with a reputation for pressing teams into turnovers. For much of the game, the Panthers, paced by a fierce defensive effort from Bryce Stark, mounted a defense that left the Blue Jays off balance.
"They played great defense. I watched the video and they play great defense and I expected that from Monroe City," said Charleston coach Danny Farmer. "They are a physical team. Good team. They played aggressively the entire game."
Monroe City opened the game taking a 6-0 lead with two fast three-point buckets by Ethan Lehenbauer, appearing to confuse the Charleston defense.
Charleston's Blessin Kimble drove for a bucket at 6:28 to make it 6-2, and teammate Terridean Bogan hit a long three-pointer about a minute later, then the Blue Jays went up, 7-6, when Samuel Bledsoe hit a jump shot.
Dalton McAfee put Monroe City ahead 15 seconds later with a quick jump shot to make it an 8-7 game.
Monroe City, with the help of a tenacious defensive effort from senior Bryce Stark kept the Blue Jays of the boards, as Charleston took a narrow 10-9 led after the first half.
The Panthers caught fire in the second quarter, with a three-pointer by Stark and a layup and four free throws from Joshua Talton gave Monroe City a 20-14 lead at the halfway point of the quarter.
Charleston quickly tied the game 20-20 at the 2:29 mark with a three-point basket from Rico Coleman, tough inside shooting.
A pair of free throws by Joshua Talton gave Monroe City a 22-20 halftime lead.
That led to the hard-fought second half, eventually falling behind, 34-32, at the end of third quarter before opening the door to the Charleston fourth-quarter run.
"I was proud of our guys. They held them to nearly 20 points under their average. That is a credit to our kids," Edris said. "They stuck with the game plan, like they have done all year and throughout post-season. They understand the personnel we are playing against. Time ran out on us, but I cannot tell you how proud I am of this group."
In the media room, he reflected on the season, Edris said that the Panthers provide a spark for the Monroe City community.
"I am proud of our entire team for what they accomplished this season to go 28-3 and make it to the final four for the first time in 25 years," Edris said. "This group of guys really made our community proud. They did everything we ask as coaching group. We will miss our seniors."
Monroe City scoring was led by Joshua Talton with 16 points, while Stark posted 10 points, four defensive rebounds and nine takeaways.