BLOOMFIELD — A matter of inches.
In reality, it was more of one inch.
Alex Lynch was an inch, if that, away from splashing home a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The shot Davis County needed to force overtime against unbeaten Knoxville was right on line from the same corner where Lynch had hit three shots earlier in the second half.
Right on line, but just a bit strong. Instead of forcing overtime, Lynch's shot hit the inside of the back of the iron and bounced away sealing a 61-58 South Central Conference win for the unbeaten Panthers.
"We were looking to get a foul as soon as the ball was inbounded," Knoxville senior Kieren Nichols said. "It didn't work out, but they ended up missing the shot, so we got a little bit lucky. They had been hitting shots down the stretch, so I was just hoping and wishing that it didn't fall."
Nichols needed every bit of his game-high 33 points to help Knoxville escape with a fourth straight win to open the season, including a third straight SCC victory. It was the most points for Nichols in a single game since putting up 41 in a 72-69 win over Bondurant-Farrar last season on Jan. 3 in the first game of 2020 for the Panthers.
"I've kind of struggled shooting the ball during the first few games of the season," Nichols said. "Whenever I see the ball go in early, it's kind of a good sign for me to keep letting them fly."
Nichols scored the first 11 Knoxville points, hitting his first five field goal attempts. Davis County head boys basketball coach Jamie Cason knew that was an early sign of trouble for his team.
"He's at a different level in our conference," Cason said of Nichols. "You're going to throw your best punches at him, but he's just going to respond. As a coach, you know all a good player needs to do is make one shot and they'll feel like they can make anything. When he made his first shot, I knew it was going to be a long night with him."
While Nichols was making it happen for Knoxville from the outside, making it happen inside on the opposite end of the court was Dalton Reeves. The Davis County junior would match Nichols with 11 points in the opening quarter, hitting inside the paint five times including a 3-point drive that cut the Knoxville lead to 19-17 in the quarter's final minute with a move that continue to work for the power forward.
"The spin move to the middle. I can't describe it any better than that," Reeves said when asked to describe the key to his big night. "I kept making that spin move to the middle. The shots kept falling and I kept getting free throws."
Davis County (3-3, 1-2 SCC) continued to fight from behind throughout the night, cutting a 28-21 deficit down to 30-28 late in the first half before a steal by Jaxson Zuck set up a buzzer-beating lay-up for Luke Keitges, sending Knoxville (4-0, 3-0 SCC) into the half with a 32-28 lead.
Nichols would start to heat up again in the second half, scoring 10 of Knoxville's 12 points in the third quarter. Nichols added the first five Panther points of the fourth before setting up Spencer Hixson for a 3-pointer that put Knoxville up 52-42.
That's when Lynch, who made missed all five attempts from 3-point range in the first three quarters, started to heat up. Back-to-back makes from the far corner pulled Davis County within 58-51 before Noah Zmolek scored while being fouled, hitting the free throw off a steal by Reeves to bring the Mustangs within four.
"In years past, there are times we would have melted in a game like this," Cason said. "This team just keeps pushing. They never gave up."
That fight in the fourth by the Mustangs included an incredible offensive rebound by Reeves over Nichols that ended with a hard landing on his tailbone. Reeves, who led Davis County with 24 points, was still feeling the effects of that fall with just over a minute remaining at the foul line with a chance to tie the game at 58-58.
"I could feel it on those free throws," Reeves said. "It got super tight going up for those shots. It's still not an excuse to hit those."
Reeves, 9-10 from the line to that point, left his first shot short and overcompensated on the second, missing long. Mike Hudson hit a free throw to give Knoxville a three-point lead with 43.7 seconds left before Davis County worked the ball to Zmolek for a lay-up with 15.2 seconds to go to bring Davis County within a single point.
Knoxville got eight seconds off the clock before the Mustangs could foul Nichols, who sank a pair of free throws to finish his 33-point night. Ivan Garcia avoided being fouled out of a timeout as Keegan Cox slipped for Knoxville on the inbounds pass trying to foul, leaving Garcia open to dribble up the court and find Lynch for the attempt from 3-point range to force overtime.
"I thought it was in," Cason said of Lynch's shot. "That's just part of basketball. We would have liked to have gotten this win. We expected to win and came up short, but we're in the days of COVID-19. We appreciate the opportunity to play and to give it everything we've got."
Due to COVID-19 affecting the Albia basketball program, Friday's scheduled game between the Mustangs and Blue Demons has been postponed until Feb. 5. Davis County will return to the court in 2021 hosting Clarke on Tuesday, Jan. 5.