The St. James boys basketball team opened their season with a matchup against Steelville in the first round of the FNCB Bank It Championship in Sullivan on Monday, Nov. 26. The young Tigers were hurt by fouls and injuries late on their way to a 64-52 loss.
St. James struggled out of the gate, as two and a half minutes passed before the Tigers got on the board. Steelville opened the game with a 5-0 run, but St. James was quickly able to close the gap. St. James' biggest returner, Tyler Recker, scored the team's first four points, before Andrew Branson scored the next four. Recker added a bucket with 10 seconds remaining in the opening frame, which ended the quarter with St. James trailing 11-10.
The Tigers were able to take their first lead of the game less than a minute into the second quarter on a three from Branson. St. James led by as many as four points in the quarter, but couldn't get into a consistent rhythm to expand on that lead. Steelville retook the lead on a transition layup with 1:41 left in the half and eventually took a 22-19 lead into the break.
The lead was traded back and fourth for the remainder of the game. Recker gave St. James the lead twice in the middle of the quarter with a pair of jumpers, but Steelville kept responding on the other end. The Tigers then had a five point run that started with a basket from Tate Whitener. Recker added a jumper, before a Mason Parker free throw to give St. James a 34-29 lead. Steelville then responded with six straight points to finish off the quarter, taking a 35-34 lead into the final quarter.
Steelville maintained a small lead early in the fourth, leading by as many as six points. Things started to look bad for the Tigers when players started to foul out. First Parker picked up his fifth foul, before Branson fouled out on an offensive foul with three minutes left to play. On the next St. James possession, Drew Moritz went to drive down the baseline, but landed weirdly on his ankle and was forced to the bench for the remainder of the game.
Despite players being forced to the bench in rapid succession, the Tigers kept fighting. With just under two minutes left to play, Recker got a big put back basket, which brought the score to 53-50. Steelville scored on the other end, before Recker drove to score again, cutting the score back to three. Steelville added a free throw on the other end to pad their lead. The inexperienced Tigers made a couple of mistakes in the final minute, which included a turnover with under a minute left to play. St. James wasn't able to take advantage of a pair of missed Steelville free throws late and lost by a final score of 56-52.
"It hurt Mason getting in foul trouble, that was one thing with him and Tyler in there that they've been in those situations. When he fouled out and Andrew fouled out that was tough, but we found somehow, some way to stay in the game there at the end," said head coach Ben Smith after the game. "You could just see that there was a little bit of panic and not being sure what to do. That's to be expected without having that experience in that type of environment."
Recker took over the game late and was St. James' biggest scoring threat all night long. He led all scorers with 26 points in the victory, while also leading St. James on the glass with six rebounds. He scored 10 of the Tigers 18 points in the fourth quarter as they attempted to complete the comeback.
"(Recker) got pretty hot there at the end of the third and into the fourth, getting pretty much what he wanted going to the bucket," said coach Smith. "I thought that was good because that lifted up the rest of the team, because we were struggling to score and it kind of settled everyone else down and we played a little better offensively after that."
St. James had two issues throughout the game that were tough to overcome. They were undersized compared to Steelville, but they were able to counter that lack of size with great perimeter defense. As the fouls started to pile up, that started to change. That lack of size also led to Steelville dominating the glass, as they had 20 offensive rebounds. The other problem was an uncharacteristic rough night from long range. St. James was just 2-18 from three in the game, which is a stat line they'll need to improve on.
"There wasn't very much comfort level there in the first half. I don't think Steelville was very comfortable either with a 22-19 score with two teams that are probably going to score well," said coach Smith of his offense in the first half. "We've got to be better rebounding the ball, obviously. That showed. I don't know if we had any second chance points and it felt like they had like 20. There's just little things that we can do to get better and I think that will show up in the score book. I don't wanna say easy fixes, but they're identifiable."
Outside of Recker, St. James' best scoring option was Branson. He scored 12 points in the game, despite spending almost half of the fourth quarter on the bench. St. James struggled to find consistent scoring from anyone else, though, which will be coach Smith's top priority early in the season. Austin Ridenhour showed some flashes with six points, all of which came in the fourth quarter. Whitener, Parker and Isaac Helterbrand each added two points.
"We've got guys that are capable of (scoring), but it's going to take them a little bit to feel their way out," said the Tiger head coach. "The speed of the game for some of them is significantly different that what they've played before.
"They'll get there, I just want them them there now," added Smith with a chuckle. "They're not quite there yet, but they'll work to get there."
This game provided some important lessons for the Tigers and they came against a crucial opponent. Steelville is expected to be one of the top teams in St. James' District, so playing a close game against them right out of the gate is a good litmus test early.
"You just have to realize when you play a good team that every possession is important," said coach Smith about what he wants his players to learn from their first game of the season. "Whether it's in the first half or the end of the game, they all all have equal impact on the scoreboard. Learn to stay in the minute and fixing our blocking out and the importance of doing the little things. They're going to get better every day and they'll be just fine."
St. James continued the tournament against a Four Rivers Conference rival on Wednesday night when they faced St. Clair in the consolation bracket, but results were not available at press time. The winner of that game will play in the consolation championship on Friday and the loser will play in the seventh place game on Thursday.