Some new faces played a huge role in Blue Springs South’s 57-55 Class 5 District 14 semifinal win over a gritty and determined Grain Valley team Thursday night at Truman High School.
But with the game on the line, coach Josh Smith wanted the ball in the hands of Mr. Reliable, senior guard Caleb Israelite.
With four seconds left, and the Jaguars clinging to a 55-53 lead, Smith made sure the inbounds pass made it to Israelite, who hit both free throws to make it 57-53.
They turned out to be the game-winning points as Eagles guard Caden Matlon drove the length of the court and hit a layup at the buzzer to account for the final score.
South meets Raytown, a 55-54 overtime winner over Truman in the other semifinal game, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for the title and a berth in next Wednesday’s sectional playoffs.
While many of the Jaguars’ familiar faces struggled Thursday night, Smith got 18 points off the bench – and needed each of those points – as Ovi Johnson scored nine, including three big free throws in the fourth quarter; Devin Tomlinson added a 3-pointer; and senior Haden Humphreys enjoyed his moment in the spotlight by hitting two 3-pointers that gave South a 24-13 lead at 3:31 of the second period and a 33-22 advantage at 5:23 of the third quarter.
“I can’t say enough about the job the guys did off the bench,” Smith said. “Getting 18 points off the bench tonight was huge. We did everything we could to prepare our guys for the game tonight because we knew that Grain Valley was going to bring it.
“They threw everything they had at us, and I like to feel like we managed to handle what they threw at us, and we found a way to win a big game. But my hat’s off to Andy (Herbert) and his kids. They are such a well-coached team – we needed everyone to contribute tonight to get this win.”
Humphreys was surprised when asked about the victory.
“This is the most points I have ever scored and being a senior, it’s so exciting to contribute to a win that keeps our season alive,” he said. “The guys got me the ball in a couple of big situations and I am so happy I was able to hit those 3-pointers. This was such a huge win, and Grain Valley played so hard –- we really have a lot of respect for those guys.”
Israelite finished with 11 points and Khayden Hooks led the Jaguars (17-8) with 12.
“I want the ball in those situations,” Israelite said. “They made that late comeback and I knew we had the guys who could hit some free throws. When the guys got me the ball late, I knew I was going to hit them, and I did – thank goodness.
“Grain Valley is a tough team. They gave us everything they had.”
After a lengthy and emotional postgame session, the Eagles emerged from the locker room to a standing ovation from parents, fans, teachers and administrators.
Somehow, Herbert managed to keep his composure, while the tears flowed around him.
“That’s the hardest part of this job, talking to your team after that tough, final loss – especially our seniors – (starting guard) Kevin Gutierrez, Jesse Scholtz, Brenden Shafer and Nick Brown.
“Those guys mean so much to this team. Some of them didn’t get a lot of playing time, but they were so important to our team and they mean so much to all of us.”
While many outsiders gave the Eagles little chance of competing with the Jaguars, even though they defeated Blue Springs in the district opening game, Herbert knew it was going to be a night to remember.
“I thought we were going to win, and so did everyone in that locker room,” Herbert said, as Gutierrez emerged from the locker room, tears streaming down his face.
“We got down early, and missed some shots we usually make, but we fought back and never gave up and that is what I am most proud of.”
Gavin Oyler turned in the defensive performance of his life, holding sophomore sensation Jaylon McDaniel to just one field goal and five total points (McDaniel was in foul trouble most of the game, which added to his scoring woes).
Sophomore Cole Keller, who fouled out with 4:26 left in the fourth quarter, led all scorers with 18 points; Matlon scored just one point in the first period and finished with 17, including 11 in the fourth quarter; Gutierrez was efficient in running the Eagles offense; and Josh Kilpatrick finished with nine points, including a big fourth-quarter 3-pointer.
“I’m just so honored to be a part of this team,” said Gutierrez, the lone starter to graduate. “I can’t wait to come back next year and see what these guys do. We didn’t win tonight, but I would want to be on any other team.”
Keller, battling his emotions, praised his teammates and said he was sorry he fouled out midway through the fourth quarter.
“Words can’t explain how I feel, or how proud I am of my teammates,” Keller said after the Eagles finished 16-11. “We proved we belong in the Suburban Conference class by beating Blue Springs, and we came close to winning tonight. This game tonight is going to make us work even harder so we can find a way to win a game like this and prove to everyone that we belong.”