Sophomore forward Andy Bennett turned away from his celebrating teammates and toward the student section, both arms outstretched and held high with a single finger pointing up on each hand. He then gestured for to the crowd to pump up the volume.
It wouldn’t quiet down all night in Webster Groves.
Junior Alex Floresca had 20 points and eight rebounds, junior Cam Hilton added 14 points, and the Statesmen outlasted Kirkwood 65-56 to win their first district championship in four years.
Webster will meet Christian Brothers College (CBC) next Wednesday at 7:45 p.m., at Maryville University.
Fans of both rivals packed the stands at Kirkwood’s gymnasium for the rematch of their thriller at Robert’s Gym earlier in the year, where Hilton tipped in a missed shot with 2.9 seconds left to lift the Statesmen to the win.
This time it was the 6-foot-7-inch junior center Floresca that rose to the occasion, leading the way past the Pioneers to keep Webster’s season alive.
The Statesmen jumped out big early with a 10-2 start that eventually expanded into a 28-13 lead, but Kirkwood made things interesting with a second quarter surge. The 14-3 run to end the first half was capped off when Kirkwood went coast to coast in .9 seconds, completing a home run pass and knocking down a step-back jumper at the buzzer.
Kirkwood’s student section erupted after the Christian Laettner-esque play. The lead cut to four, the Pioneers had grabbed the momentum and ran with it some more to start the second half. They took their first lead of the game at 34-33 and moments later took their largest lead at 39-35 on an Evan Booker three. Booker finished the game with 15.
“We knew they were going to make a run, and they did make a run,” said Webster coach Jay Blossom. Webster had been burned with threes for the last quarter-and-a-half, shut down on a 26-7 run.
“At their place, it could’ve been really easy for us to roll over after that,” said Blossom. “It says a lot about our team’s resilience that we didn’t.”
They finally found a groove to finish the third, outscoring Kirkwood 8-2 to send the game into the fourth, 43-41 Webster.
The game remained tight down to the five-minute mark. With the Statesmen still grasping a 47-43 lead, junior Sam Craig got the ball at the top of the key and drained a deep three to put to the Statesmen up seven. It was one of only two threes for Webster all game.
The clutch shot by Craig was the beginning of the end for Kirkwood. Webster completely stole momentum, and this time the Pioneers couldn’t get it back. They struggled to rally, panicking and turning the ball over, and soon enough it was 59-48 Webster with two minutes to go.
Kirkwood’s final push wasn’t enough. They had cut the lead to 61-56 with about 30 seconds left and came up with a loose ball, but were called for traveling under the pressure of Webster’s defense. Sophomore Leland Bradford Jr. knocked down four free throws down the stretch to seal the game.
“Coming back from 15 down took a lot of energy, we were prepared, but didn’t start as we would have liked,” remarked Kirkwood coach William Gunn. “If you could change something about that game it would have to be how we played the first 10, 12 minutes of the game. We did not match their energy or effort during that period.”
Throughout the game, the student sections battled it out, trading chants and taunts. The Show-Me Rivalry was in full throttle as the Pioneers went with a white-out to clash Webster’s orange and black.
“The student section was great,” said Blossom. “They were loud, they were standing… It’s about as special as they come in high school sports, us and them.”
“The crowd was outstanding, it’s always special when our two schools get together,” said Gunn.
“This is our house” was Kirkwood’s go-to chant on Pioneer runs throughout the game. During the dying seconds, Webster’s student section finally answered the chant by making it their own.
After the teams shook hands and the Statesmen enjoyed a team embrace at mid-court, the hounds were released as Webster’s students poured out onto the court for a rowdy celebration.
In both meetings with Kirkwood this year, these students ignored the instructions to stay off the playing court and raced out anyway after the games. In the first matchup it was a somewhat restricted court-storming, as the fans were quickly ushered off by the Webster Groves staff.
There was no stopping the storm this time.
In the middle of the festivities was the center Floresca, enjoying him and his team’s well-earned victory. “He really set the tone early, and that’s one thing we stress,” said Blossom of his post man’s performance. “He had to go up against a great player in (Evan) Booker, and he dominated. He played his best game of the year.”
When asked about the highlight stats, assistant coach Justin Mathes responded, “All you need to know is Alex freaking Floresca.”
Blossom ranked the win high on his list of great games while in the coaching role at Webster. “I’ve been fortunate to have some great players over the years. I’ve gotten to win plenty of games. This ranks up there in special wins though. My daughter is in her senior year, and she hasn’t seen us win a District, so it meant a lot to me to win that for her.”
“Two quality teams met to decide the District championship,” said Gunn. “You have to give Webster credit. They defended throughout and really attacked offensively.”