By FRANK CASH
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
MENDON, Ill. -- The final two seconds seemed like an eternity to Keith Carothers.
That's the time it took for Payson Seymour's Cody Hildebrand to launch one final shot from the right elbow until the ball bounced out of bounds off the hands of a couple of rebounders as the buzzer sounded.
"It seemed like it took forever. It was never going to end," said Carothers, Unity's head boys basketball coach. "We ran the final (defensive) play just right. It worked out great."
The wait was worth it.
The Mustangs held off a fourth-quarter rally to win 56-55 Saturday night and capture its first Mississippi Valley Invitational Tournament championship since the event was revived in 1997.
It also snapped a three-game losing streak to Payson -- including a 62-58 setback in last year's title game -- with all three losses settled by a total of eight points.
"This feels great, probably even better than we thought it would," junior guard Will Klusmeyer, who led Unity with 16 points and six assists. "Even when (Payson) was making its comeback, we played with composure. Everyone did their part."
Just before Hildebrand's final shot, Andrew Doyle had given the Mustangs the lead -- the 11th lead change of the second half -- with two free throws. Doyle scored eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter.
"We knew it would come down to the end. It always does against them," Doyle said. "We kept playing strong defense and playing with intensity. We came together as a team as well as we have all year."
Unity (10-5) trailed 33-31 after three quarters. Two free throws by Klusmeyer with 6:09 left in the game gave Mustangs a 40-37 lead.
After a Payson turnover, Gage Klitz blocked a shot by Unity's Thomas Donley. Alex Blickhan -- recovering from the flu which limited him during the tournament -- rebounded the ball and made a high, arching shot over Klitz to extend the Mustangs' lead. The Indians' Daulton Speckhart missed a shot before Blickhan converted a three-point play and Doyle scored a few seconds later to put Unity ahead 47-37 with 4:54 left.
"We knew it wasn't over," Carothers said. "No lead is ever safe against Payson especially in a game like this."
An 11-2 run by Payson (9-2) was capped off by Hildebrand's 3-pointer from the left wing to cut the lead to 49-48 with 2:19 left.
Three lead changes later, Blickhan's two free throws gave the Mustangs a 54-52 lead with 35 seconds left. Payson's Lance Buhlig answered with a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left and two timeouts later, Doyle made his two free throws for the final points of the game.
Unity completed the victory despite tournament most outstanding player Lane Davis being held to only eight points, thanks to the defensive play of Speckhart. Coming off Friday's 31-point, 12-rebound effort against Liberty, Davis finished with nine rebounds.
"I knew it was going to be a lot tougher tonight," Davis said. "Payson did a great job playing defense inside. It didn't matter how we won or who did what. All that matters is we won."
Hildebrand finished with 18 points, followed by Jake Voss with 16 and Lance Buhlig with 12. The loss snaps the Indians' seven-game win streak.
Payson coach Brian Rea was satisfied with his team's defensive effort but not as much with its offensive execution.
"We struggled offensively against their pressure," Rea said. "We didn't face adversity well and our focus has to be better. We have to work on keeping control when the game's out of control. If we deal with that, we can be a very special team. If we don't deal with it, we'll be a very mediocre team."
Third-place game: A pair of 3-pointers by Ryan Slater during the fourth quarter helped the Southeastern boys basketball team beat Liberty 62-53.
Slater's first three — from the left corner — put the Suns ahead for good 48-45 with 4 minutes, 46 seconds left in the game. After a basket by Matthew Ramsey and a three-point play from Shea Flesner, Slater made another 3-pointer — this one from the right corner — for a 58-50 lead with 1:54 left.
Flesner led Southeastern with 22 points, while Slater and Ramsey added 13 points apiece. The win raises the Suns' record to 8-6, matching their victory total from the past two seasons combined.
Liberty, which led by as many as seven points in the second quarter, was led by Connor Wolf who scored 16 points off the bench. Isaac Murfin added 12 points for the Eagles (7-5).