ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Few teams at next week’s state tournament will be as battle-tested as the Jefferson Eagles when they pull into Springfield for the Class 1 Final Four.
“We’ve worked hard for this and it feels good to finally be going there,” Jefferson junior Clayton Merrigan said.
The Eagles’ (26-4) have tested themselves all season from their season opener at Maryville through their three regular-season losses to Mound City and their loss to the top-ranked team in Nebraska, Falls City Sacred Heart. Those setbacks and tough games were all preparing the Eagles for their biggest test of the season and those were this week’s two games.
“It really started way back in the North Platte Tournament,” Jefferson coach Tim Jermain said. “We did more talking after the North Platte Tournament for a couple days than practicing. We still practiced, but we did a lot of talking about staying confident, making positive things happen and not letting negative thoughts creep into your mind. If you miss a free throw; you miss a free throw, now go play defense. I thought they did a great job of that.”
After beating third-ranked Mound City 61-45 on Tuesday, Jefferson drew second-ranked Winston in the state quarterfinals. The Redbirds came into the game with a 26-0 record, but that didn’t scare the Eagles who held them to a season-low 39 points in a 55-39 victory.
“It gives us a lot of confidence that our team can come together and beat great teams like that,” Jefferson senior Nathan Jermain said. “We know that the teams at state are going to be great teams too, but we know that we can beat them. … I know that those losses have prepared us for what we are trying to accomplish.”
The Eagles flexed their defensive muscles early on against the Redbirds and junior center Chase Farnan set the tone with several big blocks in the early going.
“I know that if I am disrupting their offense, then I am doing my job,” Farnan said. “I just have to watch my fouls, but it is really fun doing it.”
After two minutes of scoreless basketball, Jefferson senior Koby Stoll broke the seal on the bucket with a layup. Winston’s Jacob Lewis answered with a three for what would end up being the only lead of the game for the Redbirds.
Winston kept the game close throughout most of the first quarter, but a pair of baskets for Farnan and a couple free throws by sixth-man Dalton Luke turned an 8-7 lead late in the first into a 14-7 advantage early in the second. Lewis answered with another three and Jakub Hisel had a free throw to get back within three.
The Eagles came right back with a 7-0 run highlighted by five points from Stoll to make the lead double digits for the first time. A three from Merrigan made the lead 11.
Winston primary problems offensively came from an inability to score anything around the basket. In their half-court offense during the first half, the Redbirds didn’t manage a single two-point field goal and star senior forward Cy Uthe was held without a point until the closing seconds of the half.
“Coach does a great job of preparing us and we just do a good job of taking away the other team’s strengths,” Merrigan said.
Those closing seconds fueled some hope for the Redbirds going into the intermission as Uthe’s fastbreak three-point play and Lewis’ steal and layup cut the 11-point lead to just 24-18 at the break.
Uthe carried that momentum into the second half with a quick bucket to cut the margin to four, but Nathan Jermain answered with a corner three off of an inbounds play.
Uthe scored again, but once more, Nathan Jermain saw his two and raised him with another three from the same spot. Farnan then laid one in off a lob pass from Merrigan and the lead was back to 10 points a 34-24.
“They were in a little bit of foul trouble so you had to assume that they were going to stay in that zone,” Tim Jermain said. “We did things just a little bit differently and got him (Nathan Jermain) a couple looks and he did a great job of knocking them down.”
The teams traded points for most of the rest of the third quarter and a three-pointer from Luke gave Jefferson a 42-30 lead entering the fourth.
A Uthe three brought the Redbirds back within single digits at 44-35, but they could never get any closer as Jefferson used a 9-0 run to stretch the lead to 55-37 and close it out.
The Eagles were led in scoring by Merrigan’s 18 while Jermain had 11, including three triples. Stoll had 10, Farnan added nine and Luke rounded out the scoring with seven.
“That has been our strength all year, I feel like, is our balance,” Tim Jermain said. “Most teams have a couple really good defensive players and when they start switching around to try and shut someone down, we can start to take advantage of other matchups. They don’t care who scores.”
Uthe finished his final game as a Redbird with 16 points and got a standing ovation from both fan bases after he fouled out late. Lewis added 10 points and Hisel had nine.
“We preached it all year: defense, defense, defense,” Farnan said. “We are just going to keep preaching that.”
The Eagles will now wait to see who advances from Saturday’s Wellsville (13-13) against Linn County (14-7) quarterfinal. The semifinal will be played Friday at 4:30 p.m. at the JQH Arena in Springfield.
“We just have to keep playing hard,” Nathan Jermain said. “We have to practice hard, play as a team and just go accomplish what we’ve been trying to accomplish the whole year.”
It will be the first time the Eagles are in the Final Four since 2010 when they took third. They will be looking for their first state title since they won three-straight from 2005-2007.
“We just have to come out and play our game and that starts with defense and effort,” Merrigan said.