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DES MOINES — This game was Jackson Joens’ mouth. Swollen and a little bloody, yet still healthy enough to be able to flash a smile.
Or at least a slight grin.
“It was a physical battle,” the Cedar Rapids Xavier wing said.
That’s an understatement. The Saints and Waverly-Shell Rock staged a war Thursday night in the Class 3A state basketball tournament semifinals at Wells Fargo Arena.
Banging bodies, throwing inadvertent elbows (Joens was a victim), points at times impossible to obtain. When it was all over, Xavier had a 47-41 overtime victory and a spot in the championship game again.
In the words of pro wrestler John Cena, the champs are still here.
“One thing about this team is we never stop believing,” Xavier’s Matt Mims said. “Every day in practice, we just kept working hard. We just never stopped believing. I’m so proud of this team. It’s a great feeling. But we’re not done, yet.”
One more to go for a repeat. That’ll be against Sergeant Bluff-Luton (17-9) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“They just made the plays they needed to make at winning time,” said Xavier Coach Ryan Luehrsmann, his voice quivering with emotion. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Where to begin. How about with Mims’ cold-blooded 3-pointer with 2:46 left in the extra period?
Waverly’s 6-foot-10 center Austin Phyfe, a wonderful player whom Luehrsmann called a “steal” for Northern Iowa, drove the left side of the lane for an and-one three-point play and a 41-38 Go-Hawks lead. It also fouled out Xavier center Max Techau.
But a Nolan Butkowski free throw was followed by Mims’ absolutely clutch shot from out top, giving Xavier a 42-41 edge. Mims finished with 21 points.
“Had a lot of confidence,” said Mims, the junior point guard and almost certain Division I college player in a couple of years. “Phyfe made an incredible play. You’ve just got to turn the page to the next play.”
From there, Xavier got stop after stop defensively. Waverly had three possessions to tie or take the lead but came up emtpy each time.
Bryce Schulte made a free throw with 10.8 seconds left to make it a four-point spread, and that was it. Xavier was 4-9 at one point this season, had some issues dealing with the expectations that come with winning a championship, but regrouped and has played its best basketball down the stretch.
“We knew we could play, and we knew once all the pieces came together, we could be something special,” Joens said.
“When the postseason starts, everyone is 0-0,” Luehrsmann said. “Right now, we’re 5-0.”
Mims had a chance to win the game in regulation for Xavier, but missed a one-and-one free throw with 7.2 seconds left in a tied game. Waverly’s John Stensland missed a shot at the buzzer short off the front rim.
The Go-Hawks had a 16-14 halftime lead, as both teams failed miserably at the offensive end. They each had four field goals, Waverly shooting 18.2 percent from the field and Xavier 23.5.
Phyfe was virtually all of Waverly-Shell Rock’s offense, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds. But Xavier made him earn everything he got.
Waverly-Shell Rock beat Xavier by 22 points early in the regular season.
“It was a tough game for us,” Waverly Coach Nate Steege said. “You’ve got to give Xavier credit. They were very physical, made some nice adjustments during the game. We had some opportunities to stretch it out a little bit there, and we didn’t get it done.”
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