63 / 40
      46 / 36
      44 / 36

      Dream on

      Options No. 1 and 2 were taken away.

      But the dream certainly wasn't, because Option No. 3 worked out just fine.

      Adam Bax.

      Bax hit a driving score at the buzzer Wednesday night to lift the Helias Crusaders to a heart-stopping 57-56 win over St. Charles in the Class 4 sectionals at Troy.

      "It was a very intense basketball game and an even better finish," Helias coach Josh Buffington said. "The final minute is still a blur."

      Helias led by nine points after one quarter, seven at the half, and by as many as 10 points in the third quarter.

      "We controlled most of the game," Buffington said, "but we knew they were going to make a run."

      And the Pirates did. St. Charles had two leads in the game --- 2-0 and 56-55 with about 30 seconds left.

      Then, Helias had the ball with 8 seconds left when ...

      "Option one was Isiah (Sykes) getting in the paint, but it wasn't there," Buffington said. "Option two was Hale sealing up, but they fronted him. So at that point, you attack the middle of the floor and you're looking to make a play.

      "Adam obviously made the right decision and made a very aggressive play, a great play. That was a crazy finish. "

      The 6-5 sophomore kept the dream alive. Dream on ... with one more win, and the Crusaders are in the Final Four.

      Ditto the Lady Crusaders, as Helias has doubled its quarterfinal pleasure.

      "I couldn't be happier for both programs," Buffington said. "It's a lot of fun when you can do it together, it makes for a lot of good memories.

      "It's March basketball."


      Next stop, St. Charles, as the seventh-ranked Crusaders (21-7) will meet Normandy (16-13) at 2:45 p.m. Saturday at Francis Howell; at 1 p.m., the Lady Crusaders (17-11) face No. 1 Incarnate Word (28-1).

      "It's really exciting for both teams," Lady Crusaders coach Doug Light said, "and to have this many kids get this opportunity. It's just great for the school."

      Added Buffington: "The postseason is always exciting. The tradition here is just tremendous and the backing we get, not just from the Helias community but from the Jefferson City community, it's something that's unmatched.

      "It's special."


      NORMANDY DOESN'T HAVE a very special or sexy record for a team in the quarterfinals, but 16-13 is certainly better than 9-13, as the Vikings have won seven straight.

      "They're coming off three upsets in a row, basically," Buffington said.

      And you should know this: Normandy was a fairly modest 18-8 entering the quarterfinals last year and ended up second in the state, dropping a narrow three-point decision to Republic in the championship game.

      "They've been there, done that, and they're playing with a lot of confidence right now," Buffington said. "They're playing really well at the right time, obviously."

      The same can be said of the Crusaders, who have won five of six and are in the Elite Eight for the second time in three years, the third time in Buffington's six years.

      "We're clicking right now, the pieces are all starting to come together, and the kids are enjoying great chemistry on and off the floor," Buffington said.

      "We're still a young team and for them to get to this point in the season and have this success, they've very deserving of it."

      Young? Besides Bax being a sophomore, the team's best three players are all juniors:

      * Sykes, 5-10, is averaging 20 points, four assists and two steals.

      "He has really blossomed this season with his leadership. He's an explosive player, we all know that, but I'm most proud of him for his leadership."

      * Hentges, 6-5, is averaging 11 points, seven rebounds --- tied for the team lead with Bax --- and two blocked shots.

      "Hale just brings a ton of physical toughness, mental toughness, and takes up a lot of space on both ends of the floor. And the bigger the game is, the better he is. We've seen that on the football field, as well."

      * Collin Caywood, 6-2 --- a staggering 55 percent 3-point shooter and defensive stopper --- is averaging nine points.

      "He's really shooting the ball really well, he's had a really steady season for us. He's an athletic guard and can do a lot of different things on both ends of the floor."

      While Helias is just 32 minutes away from its first trip to the Final Four since 2009, and the school's fifth overall, this season hasn't been without its share of bumps and bruises.

      "You always have adversity at some points in the season," Buffington said. "Give all the credit to our kids, because ultimately they're the ones who have to get through those issues and stick with the daily grind.

      "They've made it happen."


      PERHAPS IT'S NOT A SURPRISE the Crusaders are in this game. But the Lady Crusaders?

      "There was a stretch during the season when we were really struggling to put things together," Light said. "I don't think anybody thought we would get this far, but these kids have believed in each other and believed they could do it."

      Like Wednesday night, as Helias was facing a tough task in 22-5 St. Charles West.

      "St. Charles West is a really good team; watching them on film, they were a really scary team to look at," Light said. "But we developed a game plan on how to defend them, and our girls just executed the game plan to a T.

      "Our defense won that game."

      And won it with relative ease, 46-34.

      "Things are really coming together for us," Light said. "We've had a couple of key contributors out this season, people we were really counting on. So it took a lot of different kids at different times to make contributions."

      No star power, no problem.

      "This team is unlike any team I've ever had," said Light, who's been coaching for 38 years. "We don't have a star player, we've just got a bunch of kids who are contributing.

      "It's different kids in different ways every game. It's just bunch of really good kids who are playing well together and have bought into each other.

      "It's just really neat to see the things they've achieved."

      The team's statistical leaders have modest numbers:

      * Mai Nienhuser, a 6-1 sophomore, is averaging 11 points.

      * Meghan Nappier, a 5-7 senior, is averaging eight points.

      * Darcy Baird, a 6-1 junior, is averaging seven points and a team-high eight rebounds.

      "Then," Light said, "we just have a cast of a lot of different kids around them."

      If you want star power, you'll see it Saturday. Unfortunately, the stars will be wearing Incarnate Word uniforms.

      One player is headed to Kansas State, another is going to Iowa State --- and neither is the team's best player. That would be Napheesa Collier, who's averaging 23 points, 10 rebounds and four steals.

      "They're nationally-ranked with a lot of great players," Light said. "We're just going to go out and be us and play the best we can.

      "We're not going in with fear. I think our kids are just excited for the challenge to play a team like this."

      And if the name Napheesa Collier sounds familiar, it should --- she played her freshman season with the Jefferson City Lady Jays and averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks.

      As a FRESHMAN. Now a 6-1 junior, she's ranked the seventh-best player in the nation in the Class of 2015.

      "We have several players who've played with her," Light said. "I saw her play in fifth grade and you could see she was a special kid then --- and she's still really special.

      "Her future is so bright."

      If St. Charles West was a tough task, Incarnate Word would be considered, well ... trying to climb a mountain the size of Mount McKinley stacked on top of Mount Everest.

      All you can do, is all you can.

      "Our season's been great," Light said. "Whatever happens Saturday, happens. We're just going to go give it our all and enjoy the moment."

      As they should.