INDEPENDENCE — The top-ranked Sacred Heart Gremlins advanced to the Class 2 boys basketball state semifinals for the first time Saturday, beating third-ranked West Platte 64-61 at the Independence Events Center.
The Gremlins’ season ended last March on the same court with West Platte winning 76-66 en route to a second-place finish at state.
“We’ve been talking about that all year,” Sacred Heart guard Chase Lyles said of last year’s quarterfinal. “We didn’t want to feel that letdown like we did last year, and I think as hard as we came out and played, it really showed we wanted it.”
The Gremlins (29-0) will face either Thayer or Advance in the semifinals at 6:40 p.m. Thursday at the Hearnes Center in Columbia.
“What a great day for our school, our city of Sedalia and are families and friends,” Sacred Heart coach Steve Goodwin said. “It’s a pretty special team. West Platte was fantastic: final four experience, two Division-I players (and) playing in their back yard. (West Platte is located in nearby Weston). I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch of kids. They came out and played a great game.”
Stefan Cox, who scored a game-high 27 points, and Chase Lyles, who had 17, played key roles down the stretch, as the Gremlins fought off West Platte all day.
The final 30 seconds proved to be a stellar finish.
Lyles sank two free throws with 26.9 seconds to left to extend the Gremlins’ lead to 61-56.
“What was going through my mind is that I make these and Coach doesn’t kill me,” Lyles said jokingly. “It fell really good sinking those, and the crowd went wild, and I just loved it all.”
After Dillon Crockett’s 3-pointer sliced the Gremlins’ lead to two, Cox made two free throws with 14.9 second remaining.
Cox then stole the inbounds pass, was fouled and made one of two free throws for a 64-59 lead with five seconds remaining.
“I knew he wasn’t too good with the ball,” Cox said of his steal, “and me and Chase wanted a lot of ball pressure up front on the guards.”
West Platte (27-2) still had hope when Adam Roe was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 0.6 seconds left. He made two of three, but the Gremlins successfully caught the inbounds pass just as the buzzer sounded.
Sacred Heart’s large and vocal contingent of fans erupted, and many of the players ran into the stands to celebrate with friends and family.
“We knew it was going to be a battle coming in,” Lyles said. “We hadn’t really faced anything like that all year — with the height. We knew if we buckled down, we’d have a good chance at winning it.”
The Gremlins held 6-foot-10 Bryce Cashman to only nine points, but Roe scored a team-high 22 points, a year after scoring 27 against them.
“That was our game plan, to shut those two down,” Lyles said. “If we shut down one of them, we’d have some results. He didn’t really get it going (offensively), and that really helped. He’s a monster on defense.”
Cox came out firing in the first quarter, scoring all 13 of the Gremlins’ points. However, Roe made two 3-pointers, and Crockett made one, leaving the score tied after one quarter.
“I came out feeling good, obviously,” Cox said. “Playing big games is fun. I was just feeling good at the first and then everything started coming up short, so I had to make some adjustments, and other guys stepped up.”
West Platte appeared to have a case of the jitters early, committing seven of its 21 turnovers in the first quarter. Meanwhile, the Gremlins had only six overall.
Forward Jimmy Villalobos, who finished with 13 points, asserted himself inside in the second and third quarters, scoring six points in each of the periods.
“I thought he was an animal on the glass,” Goodwin said of Villalobos. “Clint (Spangler and) Garrett (Strange made) big plays. The defense of Keyaire Marshall, the whole team. Really, just a wonderful, wonderful game against a great team.”
The lead changed hands six times in the second quarter, and the score was tied twice. Roe and Cody Guthrie each made 3-pointers for West Platte, and Cashman scored on a pair of putbacks, giving the Blue Jays a 27-24 lead in the closing minute of the first half.
Villalobos cut the Gremlins’ deficit to one with a pull-up jumper at the buzzer.
Villalobos, who used his athleticism to grab key rebounds, scored six of Sacred Heart’s final eight points of the third quarter. His putback tied the score at 40, and he made two free throws with 34.3 seconds left for a 42-40 lead, but Ben Heili sank two free throws to tie the game with 23.4 seconds left.
The Blue Jays took the biggest lead of the game to that point when Roe scored on a baseline move for a 34-29 lead just past the five-minute mark.
The lead changed hands three more times in the third, and the score was tied twice. Overall, the game featured 13 lead changes, and the score was tied 10 times.
West Platte held its final lead (46-44) on a basket by Cashman with 6:07 to play. The Blue Jays tied the score once more before Sacred Heart took the game’s biggest lead (59-53) on a free throw by Cox with 2:02 remaining.
“Every kid’s dream is to get where we’re going,” Goodwin said of the state semifinals. “If anyone wants to know what big-time basketball looks like — It doesn’t matter if its Class 1 through 5 — (whoever) witnessed that game, that’s big-time high school basketball.”