Helias outlasts Branson

Helias' Isiah Sykes scores on a layup late in Friday's game against Branson at Rackers Fieldhouse.

Helias' Isiah Sykes scores on a layup late in Friday's game against Branson at Rackers Fieldhouse. Photo by Kris Wilson.

The Helias boys basketball team almost let five bad minutes ruin three stellar quarters that had preceded them Friday night.

Luckily for the Crusaders, they still had some time to right the ship.

Helias raced out to a 51-35 lead after three quarters, then let the advantage slip all the way down to two before recovering for a 67-56 win against Branson at Rackers Fieldhouse.

“Even though we had a bad five-minute stretch to open up the fourth, I thought we had a great 2 1/2-minute stretch to end it,” Helias coach Josh Buffington said.

The best part about those closing moments was the Crusaders’ ability to get the ball to their point guard — Isiah Sykes — against the Branson pressure, and Sykes’ ability to make free throws after being fouled.

Sykes connected on 12-of-14 free throws in the fourth quarter on his way to racking up a game-high 31 points. In fact, Sykes had all 14 of those attempts after the Pirates got to within 52-50, and he added a layup for good measure as he scored 14 of the Crusaders’ final 15 points.

“Isiah had a big night, and the best part was that came within our system,” Buffington said. “… Our point guard did what we needed him to do down the stretch — want the ball, get to the line and then bury them.”

It was a marked contrast to the beginning of the quarter, where the Crusaders saw the lead dip thanks to 10 mostly fruitless possessions. Four of them ended with missed layups, two ended thanks to charging calls, two more ended with turnovers and the other two resulted in Helias making just 1-of-4 free throws.

“We did not finish in the paint,” Buffington said. “So we miss a couple easy ones and that dictatated our defense on those ensuing possessions, because our guys were hanging their heads and not trying to get back and get a stop.”

That wasn’t the case during the first three quarters, as Helias led 19-12 after one, 35-25 at half and the aforementioned 51-35 after three. The Crusaders made 23-of-43 from the field (53 percent) during that time and had just five turnovers.

“I think that’s the best basketball game this group has played for me in two years with them,” Buffington said. “I was very proud of them.

“Our guys really executed the game plan — we guarded personnel the way we were supposed to off the scouting report.”

The Crusaders also came up with big plays at the end of each of the first two quarters.

Leading 16-12 near the end of the first quarter, the Crusaders ran more than 40 seconds off the clock and perfectly executed a play that ended with Collin Caywood drilling a 3-pointer with :01 left. Caywood was the only other Crusader in double figures on the night, as he ended up with 11 points.

The shot was a nice bookend to a quarter that started with Sykes canning a 3 on the Crusaders’ first shot of the night.

“On that final play, we not only ran some clock, but that’s a sequence of about three options and we got to the third option and Collin buried one,” Buffington said. “We were patient enough to take what they gave us and it was the third option.”

The next big play came when Adam Bax got fouled with :02.7 left in the opening half and Helias leading 32-25. With the rest of the Crusaders back on defense, Bax made the first before missing the second. But he swooped in and wrestled the rebound away from a Branson defender, dropping in a layup as the buzzer sounded.

“A play like that makes a coach want to sprint into the locker room,” Buffington said. “That’s an emotional play because that summed up the first half — I thought we really outplayed them with effort. … To get that off a free throw, it’s such a big momentum boost it’s like taking a charge on defense.”

The Crusaders, who improved to 4-1 with the victory, are now off until they start the Joe Machens Great 8 Classic at 7 p.m. on Friday against Western High School of Louisville, Ky.

In Friday’s JV game, Branson beat Helias 61-44. Weston Porter led the Crusaders (1-1) with 17 points, while Dalton Weaver had 13.

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