The Jefferson City Jays will take the court as one of the last four teams still standing in Class 5 at 4 p.m. today against the Ladue Rams at Hammons Student Center on Missouri State’s campus in Springfield.
While it is the first Final Four appearance since 2004 for the Jays, they are nowhere near satisfied with just making it there.
“I can tell in their eyes this week in practice that yes, they are excited for the opportunity to play in the Final Four, but we’re dialed in to making sure we play in the 6 p.m. game on Saturday,” Jefferson City coach Josh Buffington said. “We are not going down there to lose that first one and just enjoy the experience of making it to the Final Four.”
The Rams (25-5), who are ranked sixth in the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association poll, come into today winners of eight games in a row and have won 11 of the past 12.
For a team that liked to get up and down the court in a hurry for a majority of the season, Ladue has slowed its pace down of late and it has been effective.
“Early in the season, they were beating teams a lot in transition, they were getting up and down, they were pressuring you,” Buffington said, “but here late in the season, they have been playing a more controlled style. We expect they will try to get us in that type of a game.”
Jefferson City (23-7), ranked No. 8, expects the Rams to continue their trend of late as a majority of teams down the stretch of the season have tried to slow down the Jays’ potent transition attack.
But if the Jays are unable to speed up the pace of the game, they feel well prepared to win the game in a variety of ways.
“We have to do everything we can to get them in the style of game we want to play,” Buffington said. “If it turns out we aren’t able to do that, we feel like we are experienced from some of the teams that have played us like that this season, especially here as of late.”
That is how Jefferson City’s quarterfinal game against Hillcrest played out a week ago.
The Jays knocked down just 1-of-11 3-point attempts but were able to pull out the 60-56 victory in overtime by forcing 17 turnovers and making 23-of-40 2-point attempts.
“We have to be an inside-out team,” Buffington said. “I think that’s the difference between us and some other teams, we have shown that we can shoot it poorly from 3 and still win a game because we are trying to get downhill and play to the rim first and out second.”
Ladue is led by its 6-foot senior point guard Jack Steinbach, who is the lone Ram to average double figures in scoring at 14.6 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field while dishing out 4.5 assists per contest.
Jefferson City also has its eye on Jackson Freeman (5-10 senior guard), who averages just 5.5 points per game but shoots 42 percent from behind the arc and can get hot with the 3-ball.
“They are led by two very good guards,” Buffington said. “(Steinbach) handles it on a string, and is just a very high-IQ player that can score it, too.
“(Freeman) is a pure shooter. If he has daylight, it is more than likely going to go in.”
Dwayne Foley Jr. (6-0 junior guard), Sam Goellner (6-3 junior guard) and Jaylen Swinney (6-6 senior forward) round out the expected starting five for Ladue.
Foley Jr. and Swinney are tied for second on the team in scoring at 9.6 points per contest, while Goellner has scored 7.1 points per game. Swinney leads the team in rebounding with 6.0 per contest.
“They are a very fundamental basketball team that just doesn’t make very many mistakes,” Buffington said. “Physically, they are very tough kids. They have athletes, they have bigs and they have kids that play their part very well.”
Ladue averages 63.4 points per game on offense and gives up 50.3 per contest.
The Rams have improved on their defensive numbers of late by slowing down their pace, allowing just 42.8 points per game during their four postseason games.
“I am looking at can we force them to play the way we want to play,” Buffington said. “Can we force ourselves upon them to where they are the ones adjusting to us. That’s going to be the No. 1 key.”
Jefferson City feels the first few minutes of the game will be very key today.
“Kids are kids, it’s a big stage,” Buffington said. “There’s going to be some nerves, there’s going to be some jitters from both sides. So you always look for who is going to play through that early, us or them.”
The Jays have been led all season by the duo of Jordan Martin (6-5 sophomore forward) and Steven Samuels (5-11 senior guard).
Martin took home the Central Missouri Activities Conference MVP award this season after scoring 20.2 points per game on 66 percent shooting while hauling in a team-best 6.3 rebounds per contest, and Samuels was named to the All-CMAC first team after scoring 16.8 points per game with a shooting line of 51/39/80 from the field, 3-point line and free-throw line, respectively.
Kendric Johnson (5-10 sophomore guard), Tripp Maassen (6-3 senior guard) and Cole Heller (6-5 senior forward) are also expected to start for Jefferson City today.
“I love kids that want to compete for us,” Buffington said. “I love kids that want to compete for each other, and that is just another reason I have grown to love this team so much because they do just that.”
While none of the players on roster were born the last time the Jays made the Final Four, a lack of experience is not a worry headed into today.
“The good thing about being young is you don’t know any better,” Buffington said. “Our guys have been locked in all year long. We have great leadership from top to bottom. One thing about the identity of this team is that they have an edge to them and they love to compete.”
Jefferson City has accomplished almost all of its goals possible this season.
The Jays won the Great 8 Classic, finished undefeated at home for the first time since the 1993-94 season, won their first CMAC conference title and claimed their second district title in three years.
“It’s been one of those seasons where you look back and go, ‘Holy cow, we have darn near accomplished every single one of our goals as a team this year,’” Buffington said. “There’s still that thing in the back of your mind heading down to Springfield that we still have another big goal that we haven’t accomplished yet.
“These guys want to win a state championship, I want to win a state championship with them. We want to hang another banner, it has been 31 years since that’s happened at Jeff City.”
In the first semifinal game at 2 p.m. today, the second-ranked Cardinal Ritter Lions (26-4) and the tied for 10th-ranked Pembroke Hill Raiders (23-5) are set to matchup at Hammons Student Center.
“There’s four great teams in this thing,” Buffington said. “… Cardinal Ritter has been a Top 2 or 3 team all year long, and rightfully so. They play extremely fast, they are very athletic. They have put it on several teams.
“Pembroke Hill on the other side, Coach (Jeff) Hawkins and those guys out of Kansas City, they too love the transition game. They can play fast, they have some rebounding machines on their team and they can just flat out go. I think it’s going to be two exciting semifinal games.”
The two winners of the semifinal games will match up at 6 p.m. Saturday and the other two teams will play each other at 10 a.m. in the third-place game. Both games will be played at Great Southern Bank Arena.