After an emotionally exhausting week in which much of their hometown was leveled by a tornado, followed by the first on-court loss in more than two months, Upperman's boys' basketball Bees proved just how resilient they are Monday night.
Exactly one week after a line of tornadoes ripped through the midstate — destroying several businesses and homes in Baxter, including that of freshman player Rex Davis, who was asleep in his bed when the storm touched down and threw him into his front yard — the Bees turned in an inspired performance that led to a dramatic 44-42 win at Howard in a Class AA sectional.
"It's been a really tough week, no question about it," said Upperman coach Bobby McWilliams. "Our whole community has gone through a lot, and unfortunately we were reminded that there are more important things than basketball.
"But these kids were able to put all of that aside for a while and went out and executed exactly the way we had to to come into a tough place like this and get the win. I couldn't ask for anything more from this group."
With the win the third-ranked Bees (30-3) return to the state tournament for the first time since 2014, joining the girls' team that qualified for the state tourney over the weekend.
Upperman had an 18-game winning streak snapped in Friday's region championship game and had won 16 of its last 18 by double figures coming into its matchup against Howard. After struggling to find any offensive rhythm early on, the Bees connected on their final four field-goal tries of the first half in a 10-4 run that put them ahead by four at halftime.
Upperman extended its lead to nine midway through the third quarter, but the Hustlin' Tigers (24-8) answered with an 8-0 run and kept Upperman within striking distance the rest of the way, not trailing by more than six in the final quarter.
The Hustlin' Tigers, who were looking to make a second straight trip to the state tourney, managed to tie the game on Xavier Fisher's two free throws with 14 seconds remaining, but Upperman countered with a pair of free throws by Isaiah Allen with five seconds to go and Howard's 3-pointer at the buzzer narrowly missed off the back of the rim.
Fisher led Howard with 12 points, and Kerrick Thorne scored 11.
"Their size inside gave us some trouble, but the biggest thing was we couldn't make our free throws," said Howard coach James Talley, noting his team made just 10 of 22 attempts. "We've worked on that a lot lately, but we still couldn't make them when we needed to.
"We're hurt right now, especially for our two seniors, but we've got four starters coming back to build around, and the thing I'm most proud of is that after we got down, our kids never quit. After seeing that, trust me, I know we'll be back."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.