The St. James boys basketball team is pretty used to close ball games at this point.
After 64-63 win over Dixon to advance to the District Championship, the Tigers had their hands full again when they faced off against Steelville. For the second straight game, the Tigers had a game decided by a single point and for the second straight game, St. James came away with the victory, this time by a final score of 53-52.
"They've been relentless and had a never say die attitude. I really feel like they've grown up as basketball players and as a team this year," said head coach Ben Smith. "We had to go through some growing pains early in the season of blowing some leads and really understand how to fight and finish games and maintain focus. I thought the last two games our fourth quarter focus has been outstanding."
This game was a rollercoaster for the Tigers from beginning to end. St. James had the first big run of the night when they scored six straight points on the back of a pair of steals and they looked like they were rolling. Steelville responded by going on an 10-2 run to take the lead with two and a half minutes left to play in the first. A basket by Tyler Recker and a three form Mason Parker helped settle things down and the two teams eventually finished the first locked in a 13-13 tie.
The second quarter followed suit. St. James got out to a great start thanks to back to back threes from Logan Chick and Andrew Branson in the first minute and a half. Then the Tigers went cold. Steelville scored the next 11 points and St. James nearly didn't score again before the half. The Tigers got a huge break right before the half when Branson buried a three at the buzzer to cut the deficit to 24-22 going into the break.
The back and forth battle continued in the second half. Chick, who finished the game with 10 points, opened the third quarter by knocking down a three to kick off a 7-0 run for the Tigers. Their five-point lead was short-lived however, as Steelville chipped away and eventually led by as many as 10 in the frame. Recker gave St. James some relief, scoring just before the end of the third, but the Tigers still went into the fourth trailing 45-37.
St. James was in need of a little magic heading into the fourth and that's exactly what they got from Branson and Recker. Branson led the charge early, willing the team back into the game with six straight points to open the quarter and cut the gap to 45-43. After a pair of Steelville free throws, Branson converted on a three point play to cut the deficit to one. That's when Recker stepped up with 1:38 left to play and buried a floater to give St. James their first lead since the middle of the third quarter. Steelville responded with a free throw to tie, only to have Recker take the lead back with another floater with 58 seconds left on the clock.
After trading free throws, the Tiger lead remained at two points with 50 seconds left to play. Steelville followed that with a free throw to cut the St. James lead to one, before aa steal and score by Garrett Marshall put the Cardinals in front 52-51. Just like it did on Thursday night, the game would be decided by a final trip to the charity stripe. Branson was cool and collected, knocking down both attempts with 12.7 left on the clock. Steelville still had the chance to retake the lead, before Parker stepped up with a huge defensive play, tipping the ball away to let several precious seconds tick away. Steelville got the ball and was able to set up a final shot, but the jumper in the corner didn't drop and St. James was able to come away with a 53-52 win.
Branson was glad that he had the chance to put the game away at the end, because he wanted to get this win for his teammates.
"These guys have done so much for me throughout this year. They set me up and they've done so much for me. I was just trying to get the game for them and do it for us, because we're a family," said Branson. "We were doing it for each other. This is what we worked all year for. We knew it was crunch time and we went out and got it done."
Branson had plenty to celebrate in the win, continuing an excellent season scoring the basketball with another 27 points to lead all scorers. Coach Smith knew that Branson was the type of player who could step up in the clutch and he showed that again and again Saturday night.
"That to me is really being a mature scorer," said Smith on Branson's fourth quarter. "You've got to find a way when things are going well to get some points on the board, manufacture something. Sometimes if you're getting banged around inside, your tendency is to move out and take shots. Well, we weren't shooting particularly well from outside and he just understood we had to get to the rim and put pressure on their defense. By doing that, he got them in foul trouble too.
"He just had a special, special game tonight," continued the Tiger head coach. "It was awesome."
Another player who stepped up when it counted was Recker. He didn't have his best shooting performance, but he hit shots when it counted and finished with nine points to go along with a solid performance on the glass on the defensive end.
"I thought he played outstanding tonight," said coach Smith. "Defensively he was excellent and he really rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter and hit some really big buckets there to chip into that lead."
Parker ended the game with five points for the Tigers, but his biggest contribution came on the defensive side of the ball. He had a number of big steals and most notably poked the ball away as Steelville was attempting to tie the game in the final seconds. St. James was without Parker for a stretch late in the season and he proved why he's so important to the Tigers against Steelville.
"Having a point guard of his caliber that is just in control of the game all the time and is just relentless defensively, relentless offensively. When people watch the game and they see the scoring and they just don't understand how huge he is and what he does for us," said coach Smith on Parker. "He is unquestionably our leader and when people press us, I don't worry about it, I just say 'Mason, beat that press.' He goes crazy on the defensive end and is everywhere. The amount of energy that kid puts out, he is relentless. You can't help but love the kid when you coach him. He's a great player, he's a great kid and I'm really happy for him, because he had to go through adversity this year."
Facing adversity has been what this group has done all season. Coming into the season, St. James had a lot of question marks. Recker and Parker were really the only two players with meaningful minutes a season ago and it was hard to gauge what this group would be. Then down the stretch, they lose one of their few forwards in Tate Whitener. Parker missed valuable time and Recker has been fighting a shoulder injury. Through all of that, the Tigers have just figured out how to get it done.
"I've coached a lot of really good teams, a lot of really good players and I've had a lot of teams that I've been really proud of, but as a coach tonight when we win that and I've got former players that are as excited as we are and that speaks to the guys that are playing and how they can win you over because they play so hard. You can't help but root for them," said the Tiger head coach. "They're just so relentless, they're undersized, they've taken a lot of blows and they get right back up and come into practice the next day to do it again. It makes you very proud to be a part of it."
Recker and Branson both know that their team had to go through a lot to even get to the District Championship game, nonetheless win it. The District Title proves the fight and tenacity of this group to come out on top.
"It means a lot and I'm glad I could do it with these guys, my buddies," said Recker on battling through all their adversity to win a District Title. "We had some obstacles to overcome, but we did it."
"It shows our resiliency," added Branson, "It shows how much we're there for each other and it shows how good of a ball team we are...they didn't think we could do it and here we are. It feels so good."
This weekend was particularly exciting because the boys got to watch the girls win the District Title the night before. This was the first time since 2004 both the boys and the girls basketball team won District Championships and they got to do it on their home floor.
"The kids will never forget this," said coach Smith. "This is the best. This is my third one and obviously they're all special and you remember every single one of them and it's an awesome feeling, but to be on your home floor where you spent so many hours and to have your home crowd there and you win it. I can't even describe it."
Branson thinks the boys and girls winning titles on back to back nights is a great example of the strong basketball culture in St. James.
"It shows the culture here at St. James," said Branson. "It shows how hard we work and it shows that we're a family, we give it all we got and we love each other."
The Tigers will look to keep their hot streak going as they head into Sectionals. They'll play the first leg of a double-header with the girls starting at 6:00 at Jefferson College in Hillsboro. The Tigers will face off against Jefferson from Festus, who enters the Sectional with a record of 18-9.