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Jays advance to Final Four with OT win against Hillcrest

by Trevor Hahn | March 11, 2023 at 12:45 a.m.

BOLIVAR -- The next play is the most important, as the basketball will always find you again.

This is exactly how it played out for Jefferson City senior forward Cole Heller during Friday’s Class 5 quarterfinal game against the Hillcrest Hornets at Southwest Baptist University.

Heller missed a potential game-tying layup with 35 seconds left in regulation, but tipped an offensive rebound to himself 30 seconds later and put in the layup to tie the game and give his team the chance to grab the 60-56 victory in overtime.

“I made a mistake earlier and I was just trying to make up for it and keep us alive,” Heller said. “I was doing everything I can, going up and grabbing the ball as high as I can, just making something happen.”

The victory sends Jefferson City to its first Final Four since 2004.

The Jays will take on Ladue (25-5) at 4 p.m. Friday in the semifinals at Great Southern Bank Arena at Missouri State in Springfield.

“It’s a fantastic feeling for all of the guys in our locker room, not just the guys that play, but for everyone involved from the bench guys, to the coaches, all the way through the program down to the third grade,” Jefferson City coach Josh Buffington said.

Heller’s bucket sent the game to the extra period tied at 48, and Heller gave his team the lead for good with another lay in with 2:41 left off an assist from Tripp Maassen.

Amarre Clark knocked down 1-of-2 from the free-throw line on the other end to cut the deficit to one for Hillcrest, but Steven Samuels made it 52-49 with 1:18 with a layup through a lot of traffic.

Jordan Martin gave the Jays full control, as he hauled in a pass from Heller following a steal and threw down a huge one-handed dunk to extend the lead to 54-49 with 1:04 left.

“It was just a momentum run and I was ready for it,” Martin said. “I knew I was going to get one that sealed the deal for us and I got it.”

The Hornets refused to go away, as a Cole Griesemer layup cut the lead to 54-51 with 55 seconds left.

Despite Hillcrest knocking down a 3 on its next possession, the Jays kept the Hornets at bay by going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in overtime. Heller, Martin and Samuels all knocked down a pair in the extra four minutes.

“We trust any of our guys at the line right now,” Buffington said. “They know free throws are a huge part of the game, close games especially. … It was a total team effort tonight.”

It was a nightmare start for Jefferson City, though.

Samuels gave the Jays a 2-0 lead four seconds into the game after collecting the opening tip and rolling to the rim for a layup, but the Hornets scored the next five to move in front.

Martin picked up his second foul less than three minutes in and sat the rest of the quarter.

With Jefferson City’s leading scorer on the bench, Hillcrest made six first-quarter shots on 11 attempts to lead 13-8 after one.

“You do your best as a coach to not let anything negative enter between your ears because players feed off of that,” Buffington said. “… We missed a lot of bunnies, and didn’t come away with offensive rebounds off those misses, and we just had to find a different way to win, once again.”

Martin was inserted back into the lineup to start the second quarter and proved his coach’s decision to be right, as he went 4-for-4 from the field in the period to lead his team on a charge.

But most importantly, he did not pick up his third foul before intermission.

“The two fouls I got were just not smart fouls,” Martin said. “The rest of the game I just couldn’t be as aggressive as I usually am on defense. But towards the end I just played smarter and avoided contact.”

With Martin leading the way, Jefferson City played its brand of basketball.

The Jays forced Hillcrest into seven turnovers which led to easy offense, as Jefferson City shot 9-for-14 from the field to take a 27-19 lead into the locker room.

“We just started playing a little more free,” Buffington said. “A couple run outs, a couple very good possessions where we execute well and get a bucket, poking a few away, forcing them into quick shots that we rebound defensively.

“All of those are keys for us to get into our style of game.”

Samuels opened the second half with a 3-pointer off a Kendric Johnson assist, the only made 3 of the game for the Jays, to push the lead to a game-high 30-19.

But the rest of the third quarter belonged to the Hornets, as they chipped away and chipped away until they took the lead at 35-34 on a Griesemer floater.

“We knew they weren’t going to go away, they are in the quarterfinals for a reason,” Buffington said.

The score remained the same into the fourth, as Jefferson City turned it over on its final six possessions of the quarter.

“We were bending, but we sure didn’t break,” Buffington said.

Samuels gave the Jays the lead with a pull-up jumper to start the fourth and a Martin dunk extended the lead to three at 38-35 with 6:52 left.

But Hillcrest made its first four shots of the fourth to grab the lead at 44-42 with 4:25 to go.

Samuels was able to tie it twice at 44 and 46, but an Ethan Weaver layup with 1:39 left set up Heller’s game-tying bucket.

“Response is awesome in competition and in sports,” Buffington said. “Just to see different players going back and forth and different players stepping up to make big plays. That’s why I love this job.”

Samuels finished with a game-high 23 points for Jefferson City (23-8), ranked eighth in Class 5, despite shooting just 8-for-21, Martin added 16 points and a team-high seven boards and Heller chipped in 10 – six coming in the final 4:05 of the game including overtime.

Griesemer had a team-high 20 points for Hillcrest, which finishes the season with an 18-12 record, Weaver was next with 13 points and Taner Hicks-Everhart added 11.

The Jays will now shift their focus to next weekend’s Final Four, but being on the team that got Jefferson City back into the final weekend of the season is special for these players.

“It’s really special getting to be a part of this group,” Heller said. “We all deserve to be there and want to be there. I think we will get to that championship and go all the way.”


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