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Crusaders rebound to earn spot in Final Four

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — At the game’s most pulse-pounding moment, both coaches were thinking the same thing.

But only one of them was right.

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Tony Hawley reports

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After the Helias Crusaders had seen most of a 17-point second-half lead evaporate, they called a timeout clinging to a 45-42 lead against the Normandy Vikings with just 4:57 remaining in their Class 4 quarterfinal matchup.

Later, both coaches would say they thought their team was going to win at that point. But it ended up being the Crusaders who held on for a 63-57 victory Saturday at Francis Howell High School.

“I’m thinking, ‘We’re still going to win this game,’” Helias coach Josh Buffington said. “We were in the timeout and we said, ‘Hey, we told you there was going to be a lot of adversity. You’re in a quarterfinal game, it’s not supposed to be easy. Just keep attacking and good things will happen and we’ll make a play.’”

Normandy had forced turnovers on five straight Helias possessions in a two-minute span early in the fourth to get to that three-point separation. The last two points came on a layup by Gerard Fuller, who had already scored 11 points — in that quarter.

“I thought we had them, but … it just wasn’t our day,” Normandy coach Terrance Hamilton said.

Hamilton, who coached the Lincoln University women’s basketball team from 1993-96, said the Vikings’ smothering press almost helped them overcome the Crusaders’ big lead.

“We dug a real big hole for ourselves and we couldn’t get out of it,” he said. “We’ve been doing that all year, but this time it caught up to us.”

Buffington said while there were holes to exploit on the back side of the Normandy press, that was easier said than done.

“It’s hard to see the back side of the press as long and as athletic as those guys are,” he said.

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Coming out of that timeout, the Crusaders finally broke the press and stopped the bleeding — and a 15-2 run for the Vikings that had started way back in the third quarter — when Collin Caywood nailed a huge 3-pointer. Then roughly a minute later, Helias got another big 3 from Brock Gerstner that helped the Crusaders regain the momentum.

“Collin and Brock hit two of the biggest 3s of our season in times of desperate need,” Buffington said.

From that point on, the Crusaders handled the press well enough to win, although some spotty free-throw shooting made it more interesting than it had to be. Helias made just 8-of-18 in the period and a paltry 13-of-31 (42 percent) for the game.

While the press was effective for Normandy, Hamilton said he was hesitant to go to it earlier, despite being down by double digits for large portions of the game.

“The only thing that scared me was I knew (Helias point guard Isiah Sykes) was so good at handling the ball that I was afraid once he broke down the first defender, it was going to be Layup City,” Hamilton said. “We had no choice at the time I put it on, we had to go for it.”

The teams combined for 48 points in the wild fourth quarter.

“I’m proud of our guys with the way we started the game and really set the tone for three quarters, and I’m proud of the way we finished the game, outside of some uncharacteristic missed free throws,” Buffington said.

That start was huge, as the Crusaders hit 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the first quarter, taking a 10-point lead before settling for a 17-9 edge heading into the second quarter.

“We came out flat and then by the time we woke up, we had expended all our energy trying to get back into it,” Hamilton said.

The Vikings used a 7-0 run in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 22-18, but the Crusaders got layups from Hale Hentges on back-to-back possessions to jump-start a 12-1 Helias spurt to end the half.

“The bigger the game, the bigger Hale plays,” Buffington said. “You’ve seen it time and time again from him.”

Hentges had seven points in the opening half, but more importantly, drew several fouls on Normandy’s post players to alter their aggressiveness. He ended up with 15 points in the game and had a team-high eight rebounds before fouling out.

“We were planning on double-teaming (Hentges) but (for some reason) we didn’t do it,” Hamilton said. “He just killed us. If we had that other man just sink down, he wouldn’t have been able to make those moves and we wouldn’t have been in foul trouble. But we didn’t follow the game plan.”

And for the second straight game, the Crusaders beat the clock for some key points. One game after Adam Bax won the sectionals with an end-of-the-game layup — earning him the “Buzzer Beater Bax” moniker — Gerstner ended the half with a score to become “Buzzer Beater Brock.” Following a missed jumper, the 6-foot guard showed he’s back from a leg injury suffered in football season by racing to pick up the rebound, and he put home a layup as time expired.

It sent the Crusaders into halftime with a 34-19 lead and some added momentum.

“It’s nice to have the old Brock back,” Buffington said. “He’s as pumped as anybody right now (about winning). For being an undersized guard, he’s one of the best rebounders on our team. It’s simply because he’s fundamental with the way he checks out and he’s quick to the ball.

“Everybody made a crucial play for us at some point tonight. It was a team win and that’s the way it should be in high-school basketball.”

It was an indicator of what kind of afternoon it was going to be for Normandy (16-14), which finished second in the state last year and narrowly missed a return trip to the Final Four.

“(Helias) won every 50-50 ball. Every 50-50 ball,” Hamilton said.

Sykes joined Hentges in double figures for the Crusaders by dropping in 16 points, 12 in the first half, while Caywood chipped in with 11.

Fuller led all players with 19 points, while Romalus Tabb racked up a double-double for the Vikings with 12 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. That was part of a 36-26 rebounding edge for Normandy, as they had three players with eight or more rebounds. Tarrick Blair, who also had nine points, grabbed nine rebounds; Bryson Jenkins snagged eight rebounds to go with his 14 points.

Helias (22-7), which will be making its second Final Four appearance in Buffington’s six years at the school, will play defending state champion Republic (25-4) in a semifinal contest at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena.

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