On to Columbia

ST. CHARLES --- It's hard to say which was more impressive.

A) The way Helias built a 19-point lead.

B) The way the Crusaders responded after losing 16 points of that 19-point lead.

Correct answer:

C) Both.

Best answer: It's on to Columbia.

The Crusaders withstood a furious fourth-quarter charge from the Normandy Vikings on Saturday, holding for a 63-57 win in the Class 4 quarterfinals at Francis Howell.

"It's so exciting for our program, our school, but mostly for our kids," Helias coach Josh Buffington said. "It's been a tremendous season, we all know that, but every team is different, the identity of a team, the personnel you bring on.

"It's been a two-year process for us, with the rebuilding and all the injuries we had last year ... I couldn't be happier for our kids. To see these guys battle through it and see the way they worked in the offseason, it's been unreal."

Likewise, in many ways, was this game.

Seventh-ranked Helias (22-7) never trailed and it was tied only once, at 5-5 midway through the first quarter. But thanks to four 3-pointers --- two each by Collin Caywood (remember that name) and Isiah Sykes in the first quarter --- Helias built a 17-9 lead after one.

"We played inside-out," Buffington said. "And when we do that, we have so many dynamic post players, that really opens it up for our guards.

"That got us going early."

And they kept it going, knocking Normandy (16-14) --- which finished second in the state last year --- into a 34-19 hole at the half.

And when Hale Hentges, who had 15 points and eight rebounds, scored early in the second half, the lead was 17. It was still 43-29 entering the fourth, but then ...

"When you're in a quarterfinal game," Buffington said, "nerves really kick in for a lot of kids, as you could see."

The Vikings' best assets are their quickness and length, but due to a very short bench (they played just six players), they opted not to press until the second half.

In the fourth quarter, they forced six turnovers, matching the Crusaders' total in the first three quarters.

"We got a little careless with the ball," said Sykes, who finished with 16 points. "We thought we had it won and we took our foot off the pedal.

"We should have kept it on, but we didn't."

The Vikings opened the fourth with a frenzied 13-2 burst, and pulled within 45-42 with 5:01 left on a score by Gerard Fuller, who finished with a game-high 17 points.

"I'll tell you what," Buffington said, "we've responded to runs the entire postseason. It's hard to hold leads on anybody anymore, especially on a very talented team in this kind of pressure."

Then came the shot of the game.

Normandy had more momentum than a charging bull galloping down a mountain, but Caywood stopped it with a bang --- his 3-pointer from the left wing at the 4:19 mark gave Helias a 48-42 lead, and the lead wasn't less than four the rest of the way.

"That was a huge shot," Buffington said. "We had a lot of different guys make a lot of big plays, but obviously that one sticks out.

"We were going up against some superb athletes, and I think our guys started playing not to lose. We got on our heels a little bit, but that shot Collin hit really made us take off again."

The Crusaders --- who are making their fifth trip to the Final Four, their first since 2009 --- certainly didn't make it easy on themselves, going 8-for-18 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.

"We obviously didn't shoot it from the free throw line like we normally do, or we would have closed it out a little easier," Buffington said.

As a team, they entered the game shooting 67 percent from the line. They finished just 13-of-31, including an air ball by a player who will remain nameless.

Okay, it was Hale Hentges.

"I think it's my third one this year," the 6-5 junior said with a laugh.

We can all laugh about it now.

The Crusaders will face top-ranked and defending state champion Republic (25-4) in the semifinals at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena. That's no laughing matter, no easy task.

But for now, it's time to enjoy this one.

"This was definitely a goal for us," Sykes said. "We thought we could do it and we think we can go farther. This isn't the end for us, I don't think."

This will be the first Final Four for these players, but the third for Buffington --- two as Helias head coach, one as a player for New Bloomfield in 1995.

"Every time you do it, it gets better," Buffington said. "I've just been fortunate to be a part of some great teams.

"We're just happy we're going to the Final Four and get to practice four more times. Our guys are so hyped-up right now and they're doing it for each other, that's what's so special about this group."

A special group, a special season.

On to Columbia.


YOU HOPED IT WOULDN'T HAPPEN, but you feared it would.

Final score: 23-20.

That would be Napheesa Collier 23, Helias 20.

Incarnate Word could have gone scoreless the last three quarters --- and still won by seven.

My Word, are they good.

The Red Knights did what they do, blow out an otherwise competitive team, 66-20 in the first game of Saturday's Class 4 quarterfinal set.

"Our girls are hurting a little bit, because they believed," Helias coach Doug Light said. "And when you believe, you can get hurt.

"But instead of coming here and saying, 'Let's just get this over with,' we came in with the attitude of, 'Hey, we're going to win this basketball game.

"That's what you want out of your kids. But Incarnate Word is a great team, that's why they're ranked second in the nation."

Incarnate Word is the defending state champion and 59-1 the last two seasons, 29-1 this season. The one loss? To Blackman High School (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), which is ranked No. 1 in the nation.

But Helias (17-12) actually had two leads, 2-0 and 5-2, forcing an early timeout by Incarnate Word.

"We made them call a timeout," Light said with a smile. "The kids came in believing they were going to pull it off. It was a David and Goliath episode."

Said Collier: "We just need to get focused and pick up our game, and I think we did that."

You could say that. The Red Knights led 27-9 after one quarter, 50-12 at the half, and 65-16 entering the fourth. But you can do the math: Helias outscored Incarnate Word 4-1 with a running clock in the fourth quarter.

"How about that? I just liked the fight our kids had, they fought to the end," Light said. "That's all we could ask."

It could have been worse. In December, the Red Knights beat a team that will remain nameless by, get this ... 88-10.

Really, 88-10?

Okay, it was St. Dominic. They're probably not laughing about that just yet.

Collier, a 6-1 junior, finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds. And if you didn't know, she played her freshman season with the Jefferson City Lady Jays before the family moved to St. Louis.

In their sectional game Wednesday night in St. Louis, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was in attendance. Heard of him?

"She is something else," Light said. "You can tell why she's so sought-after. I told the kids: 'I think she's overrated, what do you think?'

"Everybody laughed pretty hard."

As if she needed more incentive, Collier had one.

"It was really fun, because when I was in Jeff City they were our rivals," she said. "So it was cool I got to play them."

But through it all, Light kept his chin up and his sense of humor.

"I told the refs at halftime: 'Hey, I think you're costing us this basketball game!' But I'm so proud of our kids, we had a great season," he said.

There are no certainties in life or sports.

Except this one.

Incarnate Word, 2014 State Champions.