COLUMBIA — Late in the second quarter of the Class 5 boys basketball semifinal, the star players for Hickman High School and Hazelwood Central met at the rim for what proved to be both a pivotal moment and a microcosm of the game.
Hazelwood guard Demarco Buchanan zoomed toward the basket and elevated to dunk as Hickman junior guard Jimmy Whitt leaped to contest it. And when the two star players’ hands met at rim level, Whitt protected his hoop with a forceful swat that ignited a Kewpies run and drew gasps from the Mizzou Arena crowd.
Hazelwood attacked. Hickman absorbed and countered. It happened again and again Thursday night until the Kewpies finally dispatched the Hawks 62-56 to earn a spot in Saturday’s championship.
Hickman (27-2) will meet Christian Brothers College in a 4:30 p.m. showdown for the state’s biggest title.
“He was on a fast break, and with the intensity in the game, we didn’t want to give up any easy buckets,” Whitt said, replaying his key block. “So when I seen it, I knew he was either going to dunk on me or get fouled or I was going to make a play.”
Whitt made the play, as he did continuously Thursday. He tallied 25 points and seven rebounds after a slow start.
Senior guard Chris Clark made plenty of plays, too. But it was Whitt’s, he said, that got the Kewpies going.
“It sparked us; it got everybody hyped,” Clark said.
Clark added 23 points with uncharacteristically prolific 3-point shooting. He made 4 of 5 threes and collected a game-best 11 rebounds.
He also kept Hickman afloat in a first quarter during which the Kewpies missed their opening six shots.
After the game, Whitt admitted to early nerves. His first three shots weren’t even close.
An off-balance jumper hit the front rim. A baseline 3 bricked off the backboard. A layup just barely grazed the glass.
Hickman has played in important games, but the Kewpies might have been too hungry to make up for a loss at this same stage last year.
The 15,061-seat Mizzou Arena was maybe a quarter full Thursday, with fans bunched in sections of the lower level.
Anyone watching pre-game layup lines would have made Hazelwood a considerable favorite despite the fact that they lost a game to Hickman already this season.
The Hawks, wearing amber uniforms with black trim, feature six players listed 6-foot-5 or taller; Hickman has just two. Hazelwood (25-6) used its size advantage to produce 30 points in the paint.
But the Hawks came up empty on two consecutive possessions late, unable to take advantage of Hickman missing six of seven free throws in the final minutes before Whitt sunk two to close the game with 6.4 seconds remaining.
“We fought, and were maybe a play or two from taking the lead," Hazelwood coach Josh Martin said. "We weren’t able to finish and get it done.”
Trailing 11-10 after the first quarter, Hickman outscored Hazelwood 21-10 in a second quarter that closed on a 6-0 Kewpies’ run following Whitt’s big block.
It was a statement to the Hawks.
“I thought that I had the lane and I thought that I could finish before he got there,” Buchanan, the victim of Whitt’s block, said after finishing with a team-best 16 points. “But he’s kind of quick, he beat me to it and he got up and blocked my shot. … I kind of feel like they kind of gained some momentum, they got some energy and they went on a run.”
Hickman also outscored Hazelwood 21-10 in the first quarter of the teams’ first meeting, a 71-48 Kewpies victory.
This one was no blowout.
Though Hickman led 31-21 at half, the Hawks surged to cut their deficit to one point. That’s when Whitt struck again. The heavily-recruited junior shook a defender with a step-back dribble and drained a 3-pointer to give his team some padding early in the fourth quarter.
Hazelwood stayed in it but could never grab a lead after the first period.
Hickman reached the state semifinals last season, losing to eventual-champion Rockhurst 67-59. Now over that hump, the Kewpies will meet a daunting CBC team.
The Cadets (24-7), who beat Lee’s Summit West 81-68 in the other semifinal game, played right before Hickman took the court Thursday. Lee’s Summit West beat Hickman 72-55 in January.
“This is the first time I’ve seen them up close and personal, and wow,” Hickman coach Dave Johnson said of his next opponent. “They are a good-looking team. They’ve got players, they got shooters, they got speed, they got quickness. … What they did to Lee’s Summit West says a lot because Lee’s Summit West is a hell of a team.”
CBC’s average height in the starting lineup is 6-3, including 6-8 senior forward Jordan Barnett, who averaged 19.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game entering Thursday. Barnett has signed to play for Texas next season.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.