Photos by Greg Frazier
The second free throw didn’t even reach the basket.
With .3 seconds left in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament semifinal, Webster had missed its last chance to avenge District championship losses to SLUH the two previous years. This defeat was as heartbreaking as they come: 49-48 on a pair of missed foul shots right before the buzzer, and after falling behind with 10 seconds to go.
“It brought back bad memories,” senior Cam Potts, who missed the free throws, said.
The Statesmen were 6-2 — by no means off to a bad start, but not at all living up to their potential. With last minute losses to their two toughest opponents, Champaign Central and SLUH, the Statesmen were yet to prove they could beat big time teams or finish in close games.
“I thought that was a turning point,” head coach Jay Blossom said. “I think it brought our guys closer together, to make sure they never had to taste that feeling again.”
“The drive to not ever feeling defeat again was our motivation,” Potts said. “We just didn’t want to lose again.”
Twenty-three games and 23 wins later, the Webster Groves Statesmen are State champions.
In a run for the ages, the Statesmen (29-2) immortalized themselves in WGHS history by capturing the 2017 Missouri Class V title. It’s the third State championship for the program, the first since 2008 and the second under the 400-game winner Blossom.
To reach the pinnacle, Webster had to overcome obstacle after obstacle throughout the year. Despite high expectations from the beginning, the concern for the first half of the season was the lack of junior five-star recruit and SLU commit Carte’Are Gordon. The 6’9″ center was sidelined until late January as he served out his 365-day transfer ineligibility period. Without substantial size though, the Statesmen still found a way to go 11-2.
“To be honest, we never talked about that, stuff like, ‘hang in there, we’ve got Carte’Are coming.’ Our guys thought they were really good without Carte’Are,” Blossom said. “They’re all ultra-competitive, and they weren’t looking for some excuse; we knew he was coming, but we were trying to win as many games as we could without him.”
“They fought really hard until I came back. They kept battling everyday at practice,” Gordon said. “It was super hard for me, because I was really ready to play, but I was just being patient.”
By the time the big man was back, there was a new hole on the team. Devastating news came in early January as Blossom learned he would need eye surgery. The skipper would be out for six weeks, leaving assistant coach Scott Stallcup reluctantly at the helm for a brutal stretch of schedule.
“Coach Stallcup may be one of the best assistant coaches in America, if not the best,” senior Donovan Daniels said. “But at the end of the day, we the players have to go out and execute, because we are the ones out on the court.”
“Our motto was ‘Play for Jay,’” Kevin Butler, a scrappy guard and one of the team’s five seniors, said.
The Statesmen rose to the challenge, going 11-0 in Blossom’s absence. They survived Ritenour and Lafayette in close road games, ran SLUH off its own court in an emotional rematch (59-43), and beat three different eventual State champions: Morgan Park (75-67) out of Chicago, Iowa City West (76-68), and Vashon (60-59), the nationally ranked Missouri Class IV champs.
“The main goal was to get better every day, to get through complications during the year,” Potts said. “Stallcup was really big replacing Blossom. Overcoming the challenges this year made us play harder and play together.”
Playing in a hostile environment at Vashon’s home court, the two local powers produced a thriller the city of St. Louis will remember for a long time. Webster battled back from down 17, then with five seconds left in a tie game, junior Louisville commit Courtney Ramey pulled away a steal and drew a foul. He hit the second free throw to win it 60-59.
The next day, Blossom was back and Webster had moved to the top of the outright state rankings for the first time, above Vashon, Lee’s Summit West and Chaminade.
“We just didn’t have a lot of adversity last year. We were under-scheduled, so when we got punched in the nose by SLUH in Districts early on in that game, we didn’t respond very well,” Blossom said. “This year with that schedule, not many people punched us in the nose, but if they did, it didn’t phase us at all.”
Webster’s other notable wins were over Chicago Uplift, Hazelwood Central and Belleville East in another thriller, on a Ramey jumper at the buzzer.
By playoff time, the Statesmen were locked in and ready to go. They rolled through their first four opponents to reach the Final Four, beating Mehlville 65-33 and Vianney 57-41 to win Districts, then dominating Battle 84-46 and even CBC, 76-57. Through the postseason, Gordon averaged 19 points per game while Ramey averaged 18.
“We just made it a six game season, and I think we got better every single one of those games,” Blossom said. “Those guys were spot on, they were ready, focused; they knew the game plan.”
To get to the championship, Webster in the Final Four first had to go through a Kickapoo juggernaut that matched the Statesmen with two D1-bound players. With clutch shot after shot going down at both ends, it was an instant classic in the making at Mizzou Arena from the start.
After a back-and-forth first half, Webster opened up a 36-28 lead in the third quarter. Kickapoo’s Xavier commit Jared Ridder led a 10-0 run to put the Chiefs on top 38-36. Senior Isaiah Ford answered Ridder’s back-to-back threes with a triple to give Webster the lead back, then Kickapoo drained another go-ahead three at the other end. Junior Courtney Ramey raced down the floor and got the Statesmen three points the old-fashion way, and Ridder responded again, this time with a wild four-point play to make it 45-42 Chiefs. Kickapoo had hit threes on four straight trips, but Ramey ended the wild sequence by beating the third quarter buzzer with a game-tying shot.
An even crazier sequence was still in store for the fourth quarter. Knotted at 51 with two minutes left, Gordon came up with a steal and easy fast break dunk to break the tie. Webster led 55-51 with a minute to go, but Navy-bound Cameron Davis pulled up and cut the lead to one with 49 seconds on the clock. After a missed front end for the Statesmen, Davis hit the same exact three with 19 seconds left, a go-ahead dagger this time.
Down two, Blossom kept his two timeouts in his pocket as his team quickly inbounded it to midcourt.
“Our guys practiced that. They have been in those situations, and I just think it’s better to just go in the flow of the offense and not let the defense get set,” Blossom said.
With time running out, Webster turned to Ramey for one last epic moment of resilience. He circled the perimeter, trying to get the ball in his hands. Taking a handoff from Gordon at the top of the key, the Louisville commit kept in stride and drove to his right, stopping and turning his body suddenly along the baseline. Falling over a defender, he released his shot.
A whistle. A swish. An explosion.
Ramey’s incredible off-balance shot as he was fouled tied it up in dramatic fashion with seven seconds to go. He completed the and-one and put the Statesmen on top with the ensuing free throw.
“Our guys did a tremendous job spacing the floor, and we got Courtney driving to the rim. That’s exactly what we wanted to do,” Blossom said. “When you have a great player like Courtney, it makes it look easy.”
Kickapoo, with one last chance, found a man in the corner for a shot, but Gordon’s long arms denied the potential game-winner as time expired. 58-57 Webster. Gordon pounded the ball into the ground as his teammates rushed the floor.
“Courtney hit the shot, and the first thing I thought about was Cameron Davis hitting a buzzer beater,” Gordon said. “But then when I saw him pass it up, I knew the next player to get the ball was going to shoot it. I knew I had a good chance of blocking it … it was amazing knowing we had just sealed the deal on a really good team.”
“We huddled up after the basket and said we needed the biggest stop of our lives,” Butler said. “Mr. Clutch made a huge and-one, and the big fella came through with a block!”
An animated Blossom joined the ecstatic Statesmen rushing the floor, sprinting onto the court and enthusiastically pumping his fist as the weight of the tense game was lifted off his shoulders.
“Everyone was making plays, and we just happened to make one more play,” Blossom said. “If you had asked me at the start of the fourth quarter who was going to win, I would have told you whoever has the ball last. I’m glad I was wrong about that. It was such a high level game, such an unbelievable environment; it was just was just a lot of emotion.”
The Statesmen barely had time to soak in the joy of their win for the ages before they were preparing for the State championship game, set to tip 24 hours after the end of the semifinal. It would be against a Lee’s Summit West team that had beaten Kickapoo by six earlier in the year.
At Columbia College for a short practice the next day though, everything was clicking.
“You usually go about 45 minutes. We went about 15, and at that point, everything was just perfect, so I said shoot, let’s get the heck out of here and go play,” Blossom said. “I don’t know how to describe it, you just kind of know … you know your guys are ready, and there’s nothing else to do.”
As it turned out, there was nothing Lee’s Summit West could do either. The Titans ran into a Webster team at the height of its surreal run, completely on top of its game. In a historic thrashing, the Statesmen doubled up LSW 70-35 to win a State championship. Ramey and Gordon outscored the Titans 46-35. Ramey finished with 25 and 11 rebounds. Gordon had 21 and seven, making 8/8 field goals. It was a final emphatic statement from a legendary Statesmen team that finished the season ranked 13th in the country.
“It says a lot that our last game was our best game. That’s every coach’s dream,” Blossom said. “In my opinion, this is the best team Webster Groves has ever had.”
For Webster Groves, it will be remembered as the team whose magical season made the dream a reality.
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