There was a bit of irony in how top-ranked Shelby Valley sealed its 51-44 victory over No. 2 Mason County.
The Wildcats scored their last 10 points at the free-throw line, from where they were awful most of the night.
Shelby Valley was good enough, though, to win for the first time in the National City Boys' Sweet Sixteen after four one-and-done appearances. Having disposed of the defending state champions, the Wildcats move into Friday's quarterfinals.
Elisha Justice, a 5-foot-11 junior, led the Wildcats (31-4) with 22 points. Taylor Newsome, who scored five points, helped Shelby Valley to a 43-33 edge in rebounds.
Mason (24-7) was led by 6-4 senior Russ Middleton with 24 points and seven rebounds. The Georgetown College recruit scored all 12 of his team's first-quarter points, draining four three-pointers, and finished 7-for-13 from long range. The seven connections put him in a tie for third place all-time in state tourney play, behind Richie Farmer and Chris Lofton. Middleton also is third all-time for treys in a half, five, one behind Farmer and Travis Ford.
"I felt I needed to come out with confidence," said Middleton, one of two seniors in Mason's starting lineup. "I was trying to get my team into the game because I know when you're young like we are this year that there's nerves. Just try to show everybody not to be nervous and just come out and play ball."
No other Royal scored more than six points, although Treg Setty battled for nine rebounds. Mason shot 27.7 percent (13-for-47) versus what Coach Chris O'Hearn called "a strange zone."
Strange in that "it's not a standing zone. It's very active, where they pressure the ball a lot, play the passing lanes a lot more than most people do."
The shooting woes were magnified by Shelby Valley's superior height.
"We just couldn't get anything at all in the paint," O'Hearn said. "We needed someone else (besides Middleton) to knock down some shots, and that just didn't happen."
With Middleton leading the way, the Royals led by as many as eight points in the second quarter, 24-16. Shelby Valley, 1-for-9 at the free-throw line to that point, made it 24-18 at halftime on a pair of Justice free throws.
"Just to be down six points at halftime was really lucky," said Jason Booher, coach of the Wildcats. "I told them to make sure we get the lead, especially the fourth quarter. Because I know Mason County's going to spread us out, and it's going to be hard to overcome that."
So the Cats went out and outscored Mason 15-7 to take a 33-31 lead into the fourth quarter.
Baskets by Devan Adams and Logan Bryant to open the fourth made it 37-31.
The Royals came back to lead one more time, 38-37, on Phil Barner's two free throws. And the score was tied at 39 after Neal Pawsat made another with 3:52 left.
Mason County didn't score for the next 3:22, though, going 0-for-3 from the field and committing four of its 13 turnovers. Justice and Bryant forced the action on top of the zone.
Shelby Valley scored nine straight points, starting with a driving jumper by Justice.
He missed two free throws, but then sank four in a row during the decisive stretch.
"I think we were still just nervous playing in front of that many people and playing at Rupp," Justice said. "I knew someone was going to have to step up and hit some big free throws, and I wanted to be the one to do that."
Justice finished 8-for-11 from the line, while his team was 15-for-31. Mason wasn't any better, going 9-for-20.
Shelby Valley has carried a motto throughout this season: Unfinished business. Those words were posted in the locker room Thursday, and the Wildcats finally scored their first state tourney win.
"To come out and be the first team is just a tremendous victory," Booher said, "and a big step forward for the Shelby Valley program."