By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Springfield Catholic is headed back to its home away from home.
This time, the Irish are gunning for a state championship.
Catholic beat Blair Oaks for the second time this season, this time in a 54-41 victory Saturday afternoon in the Class 3 quarterfinals at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.
“I’m at a loss for words really,” said Catholic coach Dustin Larsen. “This is what we’ve been working toward and focusing on trying to do. These guys have taken the steps to get it done, and they showed it today.”
It’s Catholic’s first trip to the state final four since 1984 – when the Irish were in Class 1 – and only the third time they’ve made it this far in program history.
Jake Branham (team-high 16 points) and Charlie O’Reilly combined for 30 points as the Irish overcame a scoring drought of about seven minutes midway through the game.
“This is something I’ve worked for my whole life,” O’Reilly said of reaching the final four. “Ever since I was a little kid, playing in our old gym, I always imagined myself playing at state.
“I thought that was going to be in Columbia, but it’s even better now since (state basketball) is at Missouri State. It’s in our hometown, so we get to defend that. It’s a really special feeling.”
Catholic (28-3 overall) plays Concordia St. Paul Lutheran (27-1 overall) in the state semifinals at 5:10 p.m. next Thursday at JQH Arena.
It’s a familiar setting for Catholic. The Irish have already played seven games at JQH Arena this season, thanks to their participation in the Blue and Gold Tournament and the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions.
Catholic only played seven official home games in its own gym this season.
“It’ll be a good feeling,” O’Reilly said. “Hopefully we’ll have some of the hometown crowd on our side.”
The Irish reached the state quarterfinals last season and lost 75-54 to Mountain Grove.
“Last year, we got to this point and couldn’t finish,” said Irish senior Wallace Squibb. “At this point, we want to keep taking it step-by-step.
“We get to play at least two more games (at JQH Arena). It’s our home away from home.”
In Saturday’s game, Catholic failed to score over the final 4:47 of the first half. Blair Oaks cut a nine-point deficit to 25-22 by halftime.
The Falcons scored the first two baskets of the second half. After leading the entire game, Catholic suddenly trailed 26-25.
Larsen and the Irish never panicked.
“Not with these guys. I just have complete confidence in them,” Larsen said. “(Scoring droughts) are going to happen at times – we don’t want it to be that long – but they were locked in defensively. I take pride in the way we guarded today.”
Blair Oaks’ leading scorer, Dru Rackers, left the game soon after the Falcons went ahead 26-25 after committing his third personal foul.
The Irish took advantage by scoring 12 straight points.
Clinging to a 25-22 halftime lead, Catholic also set a goal for the second half: keep Blair Oaks under 40 points.
“I think that’s what sparked (the comeback),” O’Reilly said. “We didn’t quite get it, but we set that goal and, together, worked for it.”
Catholic led 40-31 entering the fourth quarter. A 3-pointer from Trent Martin brought Blair Oaks within 44-37 with about four minutes remaining.
The Falcons would get no closer. Squibb’s putback extended Catholic’s lead to 46-37 and the Irish broke Blair Oaks’ press down the stretch for layups.
The Irish also beat Blair Oaks 66-50 in mid-December.
Springfield Catholic 54, Blair Oaks 41
Catholic 17 8 15 14 – 54
Blair Oaks 11 11 9 10 – 41
Catholic (28-3 overall) – Jake Branham 16, Charlie O’Reilly 14, Zach Howell 8, Tyson Riley 7, Wallace Squibb 5, Will Morrison 4
Blair Oaks (24-6 overall) – Dru Rackers 22, Trent Martin 7, Braydan Pritchett 6, David Dell 4, Nolan Hair 2