MELISSA — The Melissa Cardinals closed out non-district basketball play on Tuesday, Jan. 9, with a gritty 60-56 win over Paris at Melissa High’s Bird Cage. The Cards (9-11) never trailed and led by as many at 10 points but Wildcat rallies had to be staved-off throughout the contest — including one with seven seconds left. That’s when Paris’ short jumper to tie it at 58 missed the mark and guard Mark Fisher followed with two Melissa free throws to close it out. With 34 seconds remaining, Cards guard Matt Holloway had canned two other vital shots from the charity stripe.

Melissa forward Josh Wood rolled to a double-double this night with a team-high 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Guard Junior Castleberry also posted 14 points. Rounding out Melissa’s double-digit-scorers list were Holloway and guard Brendon Lewis with 12 and 10 points, respectively. Castleberry and Wood also posted two steals each, tops on the team, while guard Chase Mapps led the Cards with five assists.

“I thought (Wood) did a really good job of controlling the boards,” Melissa head coach Eric Benton said. “And I was really pleased with how we defended. I think the last few games that has been an area where we’ve really improved. And it’s probably the area we’ve talked the most about needing to improve.

“We needed to execute a few things offensively a little bit better, especially in the first half. We’ve got a bunch of new stuff in that we’re working on, getting ready for district. And some of that is timing issues that we’ll get fixed.”

Paris head coach Billy Mack Steed said his team couldn’t make the easy shots. “You can do a lot of things right but at the end if you can’t get it to go in there it doesn’t matter. We missed four layups. A varsity basketball team missed four layups. That’s the only way you can say it. I don’t want to take anything away from Melissa. They played well and they had a kid inside that hurt us. But we just weren’t very good.”

Conversely, Steed could count his blessings as the Cards were off their normal 3-point shooting pace, hitting only four of 20 tries from beyond the arc.

The Class 4A Wildcats (10-10) were led by 20 points from Jordan Mitchell.

Melissa showed poise down the stretch, draining those free throws and getting critical stops. “We were in a lot of those kind of games last year,” Benton said, “and we’ve already been in some of those games this year. Hopefully, that poise continues in these next ten games that are so important. … Some of that stuff is something you can’t teach. You have to experience it.”

Up, 28-22, at halftime, Melissa soon led by nine after two put-backs from Wood and a Holloway free throw. Paris charged back with a 6-0 run to trail 33-30 before a pair of Mapps free throws answered with three minutes left in the third. The Wildcats soon pumped in a straight-on bucket from downtown but Castleberry would end the frame with a steal and coast-to-coast layup for a 37-34 Melissa lead.

As the fourth stanza began, Holloway amped up the pressure with a trey from the left corner then Lewis’ driving layup boosted the margin to 42-34. After a Castleberry 3, Paris’ top-of-the-key 3 had the Wildcats within 45-41 with 5:28 left to play. The Cards then claimed their first 10-point margin of the game, 51-41, on Castleberry’s layup and shake-and-bake jumper and another Wood put-back.

Melissa led by 10 two more times before things got dicey over the last two minutes as Paris drew to within two points twice. The teams shot it out, 23-22, in the final period — advantage Cards.

Castleberry also opened the game with a steal and long drive for a layup. Melissa led early, 9-3, then fell to a 16-16 tie before gaining a two-point edge at the end of the quarter on a Fisher jumper. In the low-scoring second frame, a Lewis steal and layup and guard Ezra Monroe’s top-of-the-key 3 put the Cards up, 23-18. A Wildcat 3-pointer off the glass would cut the margin to 24-21 with 1:48 left in the half but Holloway responded with back-to-back 2-point buckets off slick assists from Wood and Chance Mapps.

Melissa scorers: Junior Castleberry 14, Josh Wood 14, Matt Holloway 12, Brendon Lewis 10, Mark Fisher 5, Ezra Monroe 3, Chase Mapps 2.