SANGER – Melissa’s Cardinals claimed the North Texas Invitational basketball tournament championship on Saturday with an 83-56 takedown of Ponder. Melissa blew past the Lions with 51 second-half points, led by guard Kenneth Castleberry Jr.’s 17 points in the third quarter alone — including four 3-pointers.


All told, the Cards rained down 13 treys on Class 3A Ponder, with 12 coming in the second half. The victory was Melissa’s sixth in a row with no losses on the young season. The Cards reached these finals at Sanger High School by topping Whitesboro on Thursday and Van Alstyne on Friday.


All told, Castleberry tallied a game-high 23 points versus the Lions while guard Mark Fisher — also with four 3s — and guard Ezra Monroe rounded out Melissa’s double-digit scorers list with 16 and 10 points, respectively. Senior guard Matt Holloway chipped in eight points for the Cards, with two from beyond the arc. Forward Avery Fuller posted nine points and a team-high 10 rebounds while Monroe nabbed three steals and recorded three assists.


Melissa led 21-18 after one quarter and 32-25 by halftime.


“We kind of got off to a slow start,” Cards head coach Eric Benton said. “[The Lions] were really crisp offensively. They found a couple of gaps in the zone [defense] early on. At halftime we talked about a few things but really … when we’re shooting it good we put up points in a hurry. We went on a couple of different runs to kind of extend it out.”


Melissa played the fourth quarter without inside men Fuller and Ricky Morning due to foul trouble. “We really hadn’t played without one of those two guys on the floor very much,” Benton said, adding that his team adapted well. “All of a sudden, we were a little bit smaller and we could really spread them out. We created some really good looks for each other.”


In their tourney-opener on Thursday, the Cards tamed Whitesboro - an unfamiliar familiar foe. Melissa was a bit unfamiliar to the Bearcats too as both teams had added football players to their rosters since meeting on Nov. 19 – and scrimmaging on Nov. 12.


The Cards prevailed, 65-57, that first time around and won this contest, 74-67, after fending off late Whitesboro rallies.


“They definitely added some more size and some athleticism – and a couple more shooters,” Benton said of the Bearcats. “I talked to our guys before the game … and told them, ‘The jerseys might look the same but it’s going to feel like a very different game because personnel are going to change.’ It was good for us. Even though we played them last week, it felt like a different game.”


Benton’s lineup had more a bit more athleticism too with the arrival of football alums Monroe and Castleberry. “The biggest thing I think it adds is leadership,” Benton said. “And it adds two guys that have played for us. They can walk right in and even though they don’t quite have the feel yet … it’s just a matter of getting them in the ‘basketball groove.’ Everything else has been a quick adjustment for them.”


Holloway led Cardinal scorers with 15 points — including three buckets from 3-point range. Castleberry and Monroe posted 14 points each while Fisher, wearing a clear protective shield on his face for the first time, knocked down 11 points — with three treys. Fisher had taken a shot to the nose versus Van Alstyne on Nov. 19 and bled a great deal.


“I asked him after the game how much it bothered him,” Benton said, “and he said he’d gotten used to it really fast. … We didn’t know for sure if he was going to have to have it until last night. I was really pleased. It didn’t seem to faze him too much.”


Morning pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds for Melissa and Holloway nabbed three steals.


Tryston Gaines tallied a game-high 27 points for the Class 3A Bearcats. All told, the teams drained eight 3-pointers each. Melissa led, 37-32, at halftime and increased its advantage to 54-45 by the end of three quarters.


As for the Bearcats twice cutting double-digit Melissa leads to four points in the late going, Benton said, “I think that’s all part of the learning process. They hit some shots. We talked a lot at halftime about knowing where some shooters were and matching up out in the zone with some shooters. I think we probably did that a little too much and allowed some stuff to hurt us in behind. We’ll be able to adjust … and sooner or later we’ll have a few more calls on to take care of some of that.”


Whitesboro head coach Toby Sluder said the game played out about as he expected – a battle. “I thought it would be a close game. They’re tall, they’re coached well. They’ve always been good. Coach Benton and I know each other pretty well and we like playing each other. It’s usually a pretty good game. I’m glad we got to play them. … Melissa does such a good job of extending their zone [defense] out. You’ve got to hit the middle as much as you can and try to kick it back out for outside shots. They also have the 6-8 kid [Fuller] inside.”


The Cards scrapped to a 15-13 edge after one stanza, aided by Monroe’s steal and coast-to-coast layup, a Holloway 3 and Holloway’s layup off a Monroe assist. Fisher’s 3 stacked with a Holloway left-side jumper got the Cards breathing room at 22-16 before Ricky Morning kept the lead at six, 24-18, with a layup off Phoenix Bramhall’s feed. Soon, Morning’s big stuff block and takeaway led to a Fisher 3 from the right corner and the Cards’ biggest lead of the half, 29-20.


Whitesboro answered with an 8-0 run — boosted by a trey — and the lead was one. With under two minutes left in the half, 3-pointers from Castleberry and Fisher helped buy Melissa some separation at 37-29. As the final seconds ticked off, the Bearcats cashed in a 3 for a five-point deficit at the break.


The Cards blitzed to a 42-32 lead to start the third frame on Monroe’s steal and layup and a Castleberry left-corner 3. The lead was still 10, 46-36, after a Whitesboro jumper with 5:30 left in the third. Monroe’s drive and finger-roll layup followed by his short jumper sent the Cards’ advantage to a comfortable place at 52-39. But the Bearcats chipped away, and with a five-point burst to open the fourth stanza Melissa’s lead was just 54-50 with five minutes left to play.


The Cards charged back with Holloway’s left-side 3 and an Avery Fuller dunk to lead, 61-53, with four minutes remaining. Morning’s put-back layup preceded a Monroe jumper and, down 66-53, Whitesboro looked done. Certainly, a 12-3 Bearcat run seemed unlikely but - aided by three steals - that’s what happened. With Melissa leading, 69-65, with under a minute left, Fuller flushed Dunk No. 2 of the contest and Holloway added two clutch free throws to put it away. Melissa’s Hunter Sparks went down with an apparent ankle injury late in the quarter. After being helped off the court he received ice pack treatment on the bench and did not return.


In Friday afternoon’s match with Class 3A Van Alstyne, a team the Cards downed earlier in the week on the Panthers’ home court, Melissa prevailed, 54-48. Holloway collected a team-high 14 points and Morning chipped in 12. Holloway also led the Cards with 13 boards while Morning added 10.


Melissa built a 29-23 halftime lead and powered through a 25-25 tie in the second half for the six-point victory.


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Melissa 15 22 17 20 - 74


Whitesboro 13 19 13 22 - 67


Melissa scoring: Matt Holloway 15, Ezra Monroe 14, Kenneth Castleberry Jr. 14, Mark Fisher 11, Ricky Morning 9, Avery Fuller 9, Hunter Sparks 2.


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Melissa 16 13 17 8 - 54


Van Alstyne 14 9 15 10 - 48


Melissa scoring: Matt Holloway 14, Ricky Morning 12, Kenneth Castleberry Jr. 8, Mark Fisher 8, Ezra Monroe 7, Avery Fuller 5.


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Melissa 21 11 30 21 - 83


Ponder 18 7 21 10 - 56


Melissa scoring: Kenneth Castleberry Jr. 23, Mark Fisher 16, Ezra Monroe 10, Avery Fuller 9, Matt Holloway 8, Dylan Fortenberry 7, Ricky Morning 6, Grayson Ross 3.