By Michael Cignoli (for OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Catholic entered the Final Four with a chance to win the program’s first state championship in 38 years, but those title hopes were dashed Friday.
Helias Catholic overcame a four-point deficit with less than four minutes remaining to hand the Fightin’ Irish a heartbreaking 53-50 loss in a closely contested Class 5 semi-final at JQH Arena.
With a 14-change lead and no lead of more than six points, the game was only decided at the last second when a potential 3-pointer beat the buzzer but fell just short of the edge.
“We just didn’t execute the stretch,” Springfield Catholic coach Jack Simpson said. “It’s the game of basketball. Sometimes you play games. Sometimes not. I don’t necessarily know if they were doing something different or if we just didn’t make a few games to tidy up that one. It stings. It’s hard for us to hear, but that’s the game. That’s the basketball.
It was an emotional end for Fightin’ Irish, who have eight seniors on the roster and had been back in the Final Four since finishing second in their debut campaign.
Simpson, who joined the team this season, made it a point to put the loss into perspective.
“The emotion is about us loving each other in the locker room – and that’s probably why it hurts,” Simpson said. “Not because we lost, but because we love each other. I’ve been telling these guys ever since we faced Glendale in the district semi-finals that this match – and it’s really hard to say after losing – but it’s not life or death. I’m going to be 25 – and it really took me this year to understand that – but winning and losing is not life or death. It’s a springboard.”
Now out of title contention, the Fightin’ Irish (24-7) will face two-time defending state champion Cardinal Ritter (20-10) in the third-place game at noon Saturday at the Hammons Student Center. Helias Catholic (18-13) will meet Webster Groves (23-8) at 4 p.m. at JQH Arena for the title.
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Zach Howell scored 25 points and had 10 rebounds for Springfield Catholic, who trailed by six late in the third quarter before going on a 15-5 run to take a 46-42 lead with 3:43 left. remaining in regular time.
But the Fightin’ Irish didn’t score another field goal the rest of the night and Helias Catholic stormed back with a 9-2 run to take a 51-48 lead with 7.4 seconds left on the clock.
Rather than give the Fightin’ Irish a chance to establish a play and shoot a 3-pointer, the Crusaders fouled Howell and sent him to the free throw line. He sank them both to shoot within one, but Helias Catholic’s Malcom Davis also nailed a pair to make it 53-50 with 5.4 remaining.
The Irish tried to find Howell in the corner on the next possession, but reversed the pass and returned the ball. It seemed like the ball game until Fightin’ Irish elder Ty Lyon broke up the incoming pass and forced a turnover, giving Springfield Catholic the ball with 0.4 seconds left.
Catholic fired the shot in time, but it grazed the back of the net and fell to the ground.
“Coach drew a great game,” Howell said. “We took a good look. When you put four tenths of a second on the clock, it’s hard to tell a kid, “You gotta shoot a quick 3,” but we had to. You’re not used to shooting this type of plan – and we saw that.
Simpson said the final streak – and in particular Lyon’s efforts to enable it – epitomized the team’s no-holds-barred approach that saw them reach the semi-finals.
Although the Irish kicked the ball out of bounds with 1.5 seconds left, Lyon immediately pounced on the inbound pass – injuring their wrist in the process – to allow the Irish to regain possession without having to commit a foul. That kept a game to one possession with just enough time to shoot.
“That’s why I’m going to fight these guys,” Simpson said. “I would continue to fight with them. Ty probably just broke his wrist, but that’s the kind of kid he is. That’s what I like to call a dog. He’s not going to give up. He will fight until the end. And that’s what I said to those guys with 1.5 left. Someone has to make a play. He made the game.”
“We had a decent chance there in the end,” Simpson said. “He just didn’t fall. That’s how it works.
Missouri State soccer player Liam O’Reilly added 11 points for the Fightin’ Irish, including a buzzer-beater that gave them a 29-27 halftime lead.
“I told Zach in the locker room after we lost our first year that we would be back in the Final Four,” O’Reilly said. “Came a little short this year, but I don’t think that defines this group.”
Desmond White, who holds offers from Mizzou, Missouri State, Tulsa and other Division-I programs, led Helias Catholic with 19 points. Davis added 16.
Quinn Roubal had nine for the Fightin’ Irish, who held Helias Catholic to just 36.4% shooting – but only shot 34.1% on their own attempts.
“They really gave us a hard time with their sets,” said Helias Catholic coach Joe Rothweiler. “They surprised us with back doors and rear screens. They are well trained. They are one of the toughest teams – physically and mentally – we have faced all season. They had a great year. »
After appearing in the Blue & Gold Tournament and the Tournament of Champions, Friday’s game marked the Fightin’ Irish’s seventh game at the JQH Arena this season – one more than they have played on their home ground.
They also played a previous game next door at the Hammons Student Center, where the eight seniors will look to end their high school careers on a winning note.
“It sucks, to be honest,” Howell said. “It really is. It wasn’t what we envisioned, but every time we were little kids in second, third grade in court, that was the goal. You don’t see eight seniors on a team very often. We are brothers. Even though we failed, it’s not like it’s the end of our team and our relationship.
SPRINGFIELD CATHOLIC 13 16 10 11 – 50
HELIAS CATHOLIC 15 12 13 13 – 53