For the past four seasons, the regular-season matchup between the Helias Crusaders and the Rolla Bulldogs has been a strong determinant for the No. 1 seed in the district tournament.
Rolla made a pretty clear argument to have its name written in ink next to the top seed of the Class 4 District 11 Tournament on Friday, nearly leading from start to finish in a 68-58 win at Rackers Fieldhouse.
"We let our offensive struggles dictate what we did on the defensive end," Helias coach Josh Buffington said. "It dictated what we did with our team intensity.
"We dug ourselves a hole we could not get out of."
While most of the first half was a one-possession game, Helias only held the lead for 20 seconds. Ben Cooper knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner to give the Crusaders a 5-4 edge just 3:02 into the game.
Nick Janke answered with a basket on the other end for the Bulldogs, who would never trail again.
Rolla led 14-12 after one quarter and used a 9-3 run to end the first half, taking a 33-25 lead into intermission.
"Rolla was smarter and tougher than us in every phase of the game tonight," Buffington said.
The Bulldogs quickly stretched their lead to double digits in the opening few minutes of the second half. Helias' only points in the third quarter came on a trio of 3-pointers by Landon Harrison.
"Our guys went into panic mode way too early," Buffington said. "Offensively, we were trying to get too much back in one possession. That 10-point shot isn't there."
Blazie Klossner knocked down back-to-back 3s late in the third quarter for Rolla. The 5-foot-10 junior then made another 3 from the left corner to open the fourth quarter, giving the Bulldogs a 50-34 lead.
"We didn't guard to the scouting report very well," Buffington said. "We lost their best player at times."
Helias fouled Rolla five times in the first 1:30 of the fourth quarter, quickly putting the Bulldogs in the bonus.
"We had to come out and get them, in the full court and the half court," Buffington said. "Things just weren't going our way offensively and they were far too comfortable."
Rolla players thrived at the foul line, shooting 12-of-15 from the charity stripe in the final eight minutes.
The Bulldogs led by as many as 17 points. Xavier Sykes scored the game's last seven points in the final 1:02, helping Helias cut the final margin to 10.
Harrison finished with a game-high 23 points, shooting 5-of-10 from 3-point range. Cooper added 13 points and Sykes chipped in 11.
Rolla was able to hold both Nick Brandt and Nathan Bax out of the scoring column Friday. They combined to shoot 0-of-7 from the field and 0-of-4 from the foul line.
"We are at our best when we have a balanced attack," Buffington said. " We got very stagnant and dribbled the basketball too much. In my opinion, that's very selfish and that's why you didn't see the balance we have when we're successful."
Klossner led Rolla (11-1) with 22 points, while Alec Buhr and Josh Pritchett each scored 17 points. All three players shot better than 50 percent from the field.
Helias and Rolla have met for the district championship in each of the past three seasons. Should they meet a fourth straight year, the Crusaders would have to defend their title on the Bulldogs' home court.
"Right now, it's pretty far off in my mind what we're going to do in districts," Buffington said. "We need to really focus on the here and now."
Up next for Helias (10-4) is matchup against Hazelwood Central (14-1), ranked No. 3 in Class 5, at 2 p.m. Monday in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day tripleheader at Vashon High School in St. Louis.
Helias won Friday's JV game 44-34 against Rolla to improve to 7-1. Caleb Justice led the Crusaders with 12 points.
In the freshman game, Helias also won 50-34. Jeff Szumigala had a team-high 14 points and Damon Johanns finished with 10 for the Crusaders, who are 10-1.