Republic downs Helias in triple overtime

Republic advances to Class 4 basketball championship

Isiah Sykes and the Helias Crusaders will face the Republic Tigers in the Class 4 semifinals tonight at Mizzou Arena.

Isiah Sykes and the Helias Crusaders will face the Republic Tigers in the Class 4 semifinals tonight at Mizzou Arena. Photo by Kris Wilson.

Editor's Note: This page updates an earlier pre-game story with information filed during the game. For the full post-game story, see: Republic edges Helias in triple overtime.

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Tony Hawley reports from the Helias game

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UPDATE: Republic beats Helias 67-62 in triple overtime. The Tigers advance to the Class 4 state championship against St. Joseph Lafayette on Saturday.

Helias will play Farmington in Saturday's third-place contest.

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Read a detailed game story in Saturday's newspaper and posted online here.

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Preview article below, posted at 4:30 a.m.:

It’s easy to dismiss the big dreams of little kids. But every so often, those young ones show their elders they know what they’re talking about.

Case in point: the Helias boys basketball team. When the Crusaders make an appearance in the Class 4 Final Four today, it seems they’ll be fulfilling a prophecy made by a few of their players many years ago.

“There are so many funny stories I remember about all of them, but one specific thing I remember was guys coming up to me in summer camp, and I remember it out of Isiah (Sykes) and Collin (Caywood): ‘Coach, when we’re older and we play for you, we’re going to have a chance to put a banner on the wall,’” Helias coach Josh Buffington said. “Well, they’re getting a chance.”

The banners that get hung on the wall of Rackers Fieldhouse are for state champions, and the Crusaders are just two wins away from adding another. They’ve come a long way from the first time Buffington saw them — as fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders — in the summer camp Buffington ran in his first official act as coach after taking over the program.

“These kids have been playing together for a long time,” Buffington said. “That’s the cool thing about high-school coaching, watching them mature and develop into young men.”

And not everyone has made it the whole way.

“I remember the senior class, there were eight or 10 kids back then and now it’s down to two with Brock (Gerstner) and Mike (Tannehill),” Buffington said. “But what a great two it’s down to. I would have been devastated if those two hadn’t made it through and I’m so proud of both of them.”

With a roster that boasts six juniors and six sophomores to go with the two seniors, some people are already pointing toward next year as a big year for Helias. Don’t count Buffington in that group.

“We’re there this year and we want to do well this year,” he said. “I’ve been approached a lot like, ‘Can you believe how good you’re going to be next year?’ We don’t know what next year holds. We know that we’re at the Final Four now and we’re one game away from playing for a state championship. That’s how we’re approaching this thing.”

III

IN ORDER TO get that win and play for a state championship, the Crusaders have a big hurdle to overcome. Namely, the Republic Tigers, the defending state champions.

“They’re a very good basketball team, they’re solid fundamentally,” Buffington said. “And they’re experienced, they return a great core of last year’s state championship team.”

Republic returns two starters and one reserve out of the seven Tigers who played in last year’s Final Four.

“They’re very efficient on both ends of the floor, they don’t make many mistakes,” Buffington said. “One reason they’ve been so successful the last two years is they just don’t beat themselves.”

While senior forward Cody Geiger leads the Tigers with 17.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, he’s not the first thing that stands out about Republic.

“Geiger is a load,” Buffington said. “He’s a 6-3, very intense basketball player that can go inside and out.

“But their guard play is outstanding. Their point guard makes them go. (Dylan) Bekemeier, he establishes the pace, the tone on both ends. You can’t take the ball from him, he handles it extremely well, and he can shoot it.”

Bekemeier averages 11.1 points and 6.0 assists per contest. Also averaging double figures in scoring is senior guard Canyon Smith, who hits 55 percent of his 3-point attempts while putting in 14.2 points per game.

“Their two wings, (junior Brock Yocum) and (Smith) shoot it extremely well,” Buffington said. “All three of their guards are capable of hitting five to six 3s on any given night. When you have solid guards like that, that consistently have the ball in their hands, it makes for some effective possessions.”

The 7:45 p.m. contest at Mizzou Arena between the top-ranked Tigers (25-4) and the seventh-ranked Crusaders (22-7) could come down to a few intangibles.

“It’s really a kind of cool matchup, both teams have very similar philosophies,” Buffington said. “… Their guards are looking to shoot it and attack from an inside-out possession, as we do. Defensively, they’re a man-to-man team like us and they’re solid fundamentally, they pressure the basketball and help well.

“They’re a very physical team, too. I’m impressed with the way they rebound the basketball on both ends. They’re relentless on the boards.

“When you have a good matchup, a semifinal game comes down to effort plays — who defends better and who scores in the paint better. Obviously it’s always a key to take care of the basketball and gain more possessions than they do. But our kids know we have to play as hard as we can possibly play. If we do that, I always like our chances with this group of guys.”

Republic’s only losses this season have come to a pair of Class 5 teams that were district champions — Waynesville and Nixa — falling twice to each team. The Tigers have picked up 22 of their 25 wins by double digits, with two others coming by nine points and the final one by eight.

Helias and Republic have played three common opponents this season. Republic boasts wins against West Plains, Bolivar and Branson, while Helias beat West Plains and Branson and lost to Bolivar.

III

THE WINNER OF today’s game will play the winner of the 6 p.m. semifinal between third-ranked St. Joseph Lafayette (24-4) and unranked Farmington (21-9). (Update: St. Joseph Lafayette beat Farmington 46-41.)

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Regardless of the result, the Crusaders will be playing their final game of the season March 22, more than four months after their first practice.

“Our guys are very focused right now and we’ll see what happens,” Buffington said. “The high-school basketball season is a grind. It’s the longest season in high-school sports, especially when you go deep. But our guys have continued to stay focused throughout.”

Helias will be seeking its first state title in basketball for either boys or girls. The Crusaders finished third in the state in Class 3A back in 1993 and 1994, fourth in Class 3A in 2001 and third in Class 4 in 2009. Buffington was the coach for that last one, as Helias will be making its second trip to the Final Four in his six seasons.

“Someone asked me the other day if it’s better this time around, more special than ‘09, but all I can say is it’s all so special,” he said. “Every group is special, regardless of if you make it to the Final Four or not.

“I had one of the best experiences of my coaching career with that senior group in ‘09, there was a lot of fun and energy and enthusiasm. To go four years in between, not getting back after you get a taste of it, makes you want to get back even more. It’s been a lot of work and it’s been a grind, but we’re very excited now.”

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