NASHVILLE — Carterville made its case as the early favorite in the Mississippi Division with a 43-37 win over previously unbeaten Nashville Wednesday night.

And even though it may be a bit premature to talk about championships in the Southern Illinois River-to-River Conference, first-year Carterville coach Shane Hawkins understood the importance of his team’s victory.

“We are the only team in the league with two road wins,” said Hawkins, whose team improved to 5-5 overall and 3-0 in league play.

“It’s a 10-game marathon and it’s going to last until the end of February, but if you have aspirations of winning the conference you have to be able to win on the road and getting two of those early is key for us.

“Anytime you win a conference game on the road against a very good team it will hopefully give you some confidence in what we you’re doing,” Hawkins added. “Hopefully it’s a good springboard into the holiday tournament and the 2017 portion of our schedule.”

The Lions struggled out of the gate at Assembly Hall, falling behind 11-4 following Brogan Kemp’s bucket a minute into the second quarter.

But Carterville would start chipping away at the lead, closing the first half with a 13-4 run to lead at the intermission, and then outscore the Hornets 12-5 in the third period to take a 29-20 advantage into the fourth frame. Justin Johnson’s bucket with 6:30 left in the game put Carterville ahead 33-22.

“We’ve had trouble starting games in all 10 games that we’ve had, but I think our mindset changed in that second quarter and we became the aggressor,” said Hawkins. “All of a sudden we were finishing at the rim, we were winning 50-50 balls, we were diving on the floor, and for whatever reason it takes us until the second quarter for that to happen.”

The Hornets, however, would make it interesting down the stretch.

Bryce Bultman’s basket with 11 seconds left cut the gap to 39-37, and following a Carterville turnover on the inbounds play, Nashville had the ball on its own end of the floor with a chance for the win.

But the Hornets would turn the ball over on its own inbounds play and the Lions sealed the deal with four straight free throws.

“The last couple of games we’ve seen that run coming at the end of a game and couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Hawkins said. “Being able to stop their momentum was big and we weren’t standing around waiting for something bad to happen.”

Taylor Heil led Carterville with 14 points and 10 rebounds, as Johnson added 11 points. The Lions hit 17-35 (48.5%) of their shots for the game, and went 7-9 from the free throw line.

Nashville made just 33 percent (13-39) of their shots, and went only 6-14 from the charity stripe. Ryan Brink paced the Hornets, now 7-1 (2-1), with 11 points.

“When you don’t shoot well you have to rely on your defense and execution and we didn’t do that tonight,” said coach Brad Weathers. “Whether it was a lack of communication or what, the bottom line is we didn’t get it done.

“With the strength of our schedule we are going to have more games against teams like this, and if we are going to get better we have to execute better.”

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