Lady Crusaders hold off St. James

Helias hung on by the skin of its teeth.

Against the No. 1 team in Class 3, that was just fine for the Lady Crusaders.

After coughing up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, Helias ended the game on a 10-2 run to escape with a 53-45 victory against St. James on Saturday evening at Rackers Fieldhouse in Jefferson City.

“They haven’t been ranked No. 1 in the state for no reason,” Helias head coach Doug Light said. “We knew they had runs in them, and we were expecting it.”

Helias entered the fourth quarter ahead 38-24. That’s when St. James turned it on.

The Tigers went on a 19-5 run, creating offense mostly off their fullcourt press, to tie the game at 43 with 3:41 to play. Helias turned the ball over seven times in the final stanza and 20 times in the game.

“This is a team that destroys people by unnerving them,” Light said. “You have to have your wits about you. Oh my gosh, we watched film of them just taking people apart.

“When they came back and tied it, we told our kids, ‘Watershed mark of the game, right here. Can you answer them back? Because everything is going their way right now.’ That’s the true mark of a team. We were able to answer them.”

After both teams missed a pair of chances to take the lead, Helias finally did and kept it for good. Meghan Nappier nailed a baseline jumper following an offensive rebound by Bre Zanders to put Helias ahead 45-43 with 2:10 to play.

Maybe the most crucial play of the game came about a minute later. St. James had possession down by a basket with less than a minute remaining. As the Tigers were swinging the ball around the perimeter, Nappier stepped into a passing lane, stole the ball and was fouled on her layup attempt. She knocked down both free throws to give the Lady Crusaders a 49-45 advantage with 44 seconds left.

Helias shut down St. James the rest of the way and hit 4-of-6 free throws to seal the victory.

“They made a strong run at the end,” Light said. “Had all the momentum, had all the crowd noise going their way, and our kids answered again.

“Megan getting that steal was huge. Just had some kids making some big plays. Just a huge, huge game for us.”

The late-game escape prevented a nearly flawless first three quarters from going to waste.

Helias led 12-8 after one quarter, 29-18 at halftime and held its largest lead heading into the fourth period.

Through three quarters, St. James was shooting just 9-for-40 (23 percent) from the field. Zanders, Hillary Hentges and Emma Verslues were shutting down any St. James’ attempts to get the ball inside. Helias was taking care of the ball against the press.

For 24 minutes, it looked like Helias would cruise to victory. The final eight gave the fans a fantastic finish.

“They picked up their pressure and we got a little bit rattled by it,” Light said of the fourth quarter. “We made some bad decisions and they thrive on that. They really play off of their defense more than anything.

“What a good team does, they answer this. Our kids met it again. They rose to the occasion.”

Taylor Hagenhoff paced Helias with 14 points. Zanders added 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Alison McDowell paced St. James with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting. MJ Buschmann added 11 points and nine rebounds.

Helias (15-7) travels Monday to play Father Tolton in Columbia. St. James falls to 20-3.

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