Rock Bridge players take on AAU teammates in state boys basketball semifinals

Thursday, March 10, 2011 | 7:55 p.m. CST; updated 8:52 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 10, 2011
Rock Bridge senior Matt Kelly will play against some of his former AAU teammates on Friday when the Bruins take on Troy-Buchanan in the quarterfinals of the Class 5 state boys basketball tournament at Mizzou Arena.

COLUMBIA — The morning after Rock Bridge beat Branson in the quarterfinals of the Class 5 state boys basketball tournament, senior Matt Kelly logged onto Facebook and read the comment his friend, Neil Branham, had left him:

"Congrats on the final four... ill see you down there bro!"

To be polite, Kelly pressed the "like" button. But he did not reply.

"If I have an opponent coming up, I don't really like to talk to them," Kelly said.

On Friday, Kelly and Rock Bridge (24-4) will meet Branham and Troy Buchanan (20-10) at Mizzou Arena. The Show-Me Showdown semifinal game will be on the line.

So will bragging rights.

Last summer, Kelly and fellow Bruins senior Karon Hayes played on the same AAU team as Troy's Derek Deters, Cullen Devins and Branham.

Branham, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, scored 26 points in Troy's quarterfinal upset of DeSmet and 27 in the District 7 championship. Deters, a junior guard, scored 22 points in the quarterfinals. Devins, a senior guard, led the team with 15.5 points per game until he was suspended indefinitely in February.

Even though Rock Bridge beat Troy in the Trojans' own tournament on Dec. 10, Branham said this is the one that matters.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "They won our tournament championship. Hopefully, we can pull out the win, so we can have a little more bragging rights than they do."

Becoming teammates on the St. Louis Raptors AAU team started last season when Rock Bridge played at Mizzou Arena in the MFA Oil Shootout. MU student Patrick Betley watched from the stands, looking for players that could compete on the AAU team he was trying to put together. Kelly impressed Betley, who soon contacted him.

Deters already played on the Raptors under-16 team, and Betley got Branham and Devins to play on the under-17 team with Kelly. When they had a shortage of players midway through the summer, Kelly invited Hayes, and Deters moved up.

The team played in about 10 tournaments, some in St. Louis and others in Indianapolis and Little Rock, Ark. The Rock Bridge and Troy players got to know each other during hotel stays for the road games. They would compete in freestyle rap battles and wrestle each other on the carpeted floor. Inevitably, they would watch the same movie over and over again.

"At every hotel we stayed at, we watched 'Remember The Titans,'" Kelly said. "It was just always on, and we always watched it."

Their banter became tense only when they argued about who would win if their high school teams played each other. Branham would say Troy had shooters and could match up with Rock Bridge point guard Travis Jorgenson. Kelly said there was no way, and Hayes upped the ante by predicting at least a 30-point Rock Bridge victory.

When the Bruins found themselves down four at halftime of the Troy tournament title game, Kelly said he thought, "There goes the bet."

Then he switched from guarding Branham to a hot-handed Devins. Troy scored only 15 points in the second half, and Rock Bridge won 67-50.

"I ended up shutting him down pretty good," Kelly said.

When the teams meet on Friday, Devins won't be playing, but Kelly will have to deal with Branham, who has taken on an even bigger role in his teammate's absence. Hayes praised Branham's size and quickness (he was also Troy's quarterback) and compared his game to Kelly's. Both would rather drive than shoot, but they can do both.

Hayes also said he expected Kelly to shut down Branham but had his eye on Deters.

"I think we can hold Neil under his average," Hayes said. "We're more worried about Derek than Neil because Derek is a pure shooter and can change the game."

Branham said the game won't be decided only on the Bruins' defense.

"The first time we didn't watch enough film, and we were slacking," Branham said. "We didn't do what we needed to on defense. In the last month we've really picked it up. We haven't made a whole lot of changes, but we've just played a lot harder since then."

Kelly got a lot of playing time in Rock Bridge's stunning semifinal loss to Chaminade two years ago. He said it ended up being one of the worst days of his life. When the Bruins take the floor as the favorite again on Friday, they won't be expecting any 30-point blowout.

"We're going in there with the mindset that they're in our way," Kelly said. "We have to do everything we can to get them out of our way."

Without any back-and-forth on Facebook before the game, Branham guessed the trash talk between the former AAU teammates might come on the floor. At first Kelly said there wouldn't be, but then he changed his mind.

"Definitely, if we're up, and I'm playing pretty well, I might say a few words," he said.

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