GOWER, Mo. — East Buchanan quickly knew a major hurdle would be cleared in Thursday night’s Class 2 District 16 semifinal.
The Bulldogs held a monstrous lead on fourth-seeded Princeton seemingly from the outset and a visible sense of relief showed up as players hugged one another and celebrated on the bench during the final minutes of a 71-33 blowout win at East Buchanan High School. East Buchanan finally made it back.
The hosts most recent trip to a championship game coincided with their last district title eight seasons ago.
Since, a myriad of disappointing exits plagued East Buchanan, including semifinal losses in five of the past six seasons. The Bulldogs seek their fourth postseason bid in school history and first since going back-to-back in ‘05 and ‘06, including a program-best fourth-place with star Andrew Mead in the first of those two campaigns.
East Buchanan’s district crowns came amid a similar Class 2 field to this one before shifting up for an extended run at the Class 3 level. The Bulldogs dropped back down last year when they lost to St. Joseph Christian in the first round.
“It definitely means a lot (to finally make the finals),” said senior forward Brent Schultz, who tallied 11 points against overmatched Princeton. “We’ve been working all year for the Saturday night. It will be our fourth championship in school history if we win so that’s pretty awesome that we have the chance to do that.”
East Buchanan (20-7) never trailed and barely allowed the Tigers to even slightly threaten the lead after the early moments. Princeton’s Adam Millburn knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing after East Buchanan’s defense scrambled to find its assignments on a loose ball, closing the Tigers within 4-3 less than 2 minutes into the first quarter.
The slim margin didn’t last long.
East Buchanan mounted a 17-0 run after Millburn’s trey and secured a 21-3 advantage after the first period.
The Bulldogs’ full-court press made sure that lead would be more than enough in the final three quarters. East Buchanan’s depth allowed it to keep rotating fresh players in to keep up the frenzied pressure and force 28 Princeton turnovers before halftime.
“I think so and I really hope that (the press is in full swing),” East Buchanan coach Kevin Jermain said. “We’re confident with it right now, and our guys are putting a lot of energy into it. Without the depth we have, we can’t play the way we want to. We want to push the ball and apply the pressure and without that depth, I don’t think that’s possible.”
The excessive turnovers also allowed two of East Buchanan’s key scoring threats to create easy opportunities at the rim.
Schultz and sophomore Zac Johnson combined for 21 of the Bulldogs’ 46 points at the break. Johnson scored 12 of his game-high 14 points in the first two quarters, including an eight-point second. With the lead well in hand, East Buchanan emptied its bench late in the third quarter, and 11 different players recorded a point.
With the Bulldogs’ defense refusing to let Princeton bring the ball across the midcourt stripe, the Tigers couldn’t keep pace.
Princeton recorded just two field goals in the first half while shooting 2-for-5 from the free throw line to compound the issues with its turnovers. The Tigers committed 36 turnovers total but did manage to cut down on the errors in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to the 30-point running clock.
Junior Brant Faulkner led Princeton (16-11) with eight points, all of which came in the second half. The guard knocked down one field goal — a trey — in the fourth quarter and shot 5-of-8 from the charity stripe. Sophomore guard Hunter Boxley pitched in eight points with six in the second half.
East Buchanan plays Gallatin for the title at 2:30 p.m., Saturday following the girls championship between Gallatin and Maysville at 1 p.m. Both games were moved up due to the possibility of inclement weather.
Gallatin boys 63, Albany 40
Locked in a back-and-forth battle throughout the first half, Bulldogs coach Brent Burke waited to see a response.
Gallatin collectively increased the pressure defensively in the second of two Class 2 District 16 semifinals and didn’t rely on one player to provide a spark. The Bulldogs forced defending district champion Albany to settle for difficult shots and also picked up a few key turnovers to mount a 12-2 run early in the third quarter to finally provide a 40-25 advantage before holding off a slight comeback attempt and advancing to Saturday’s championship matchup with host East Buchanan.
“The key for us was our defense,” Burke said. “I felt like everyone started feeding off it. You know, we’d get a turnover here and a turnover there and turn it into points. Albany made it tough on us to get good looks in the half court but once we got it going there, we were able to get some screens and get some guys open to hit some big shots.”
Albany (16-9) briefly battled to keep the deficit to 10 points, but the Gallatin defense maintained its newly found intensity and stretched the lead consistently throughout the rest of the third and into the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs (20-7) also received a boost from a key defender who had been struggling to get his shot to fall recently.
Junior Grant Simmons stepped up and knocked down a pair of 3s in the midst of Gallatin’s lead-lengthening run to fuel his game-high 19 points.
Burke also tasked the guard with keeping Albany’s main threat in check. Simmons limited Albany’s Drew Cottrill to just five points, and the lack of production limited the Warriors in the second half from slicing into the deficit.
Gallatin also won the regular-season matchup between Grand River Conference foes, a 60-41 win in last January.
“Grant has done a really good job on some of the opposing team’s players this year for us, and the last time we faced Albany, he guarded Cottrill so I told him he’s got him again,” Burke said. “(Simmons) has struggled lately, but tonight, he really stepped up. I was really pleased to see him step in there and get some open looks and knock them down.”
Jacob Boyd added 15 points for Gallatin, and Harris Cameron added nine. Andrew Raines led Albany with 11 points.