By Trent Friedel, exclusive to the Times
The Saint Mary’s boy’s basketball team ascended to pinnacle of their sport Friday evening as they competed for the Division IV State Championship. It would be the first title opportunity for the Natchitoches based school. The task was tall as they squared off against the reigning Champion, Lafayette Christian Knights. The Knights came into the contest with a season record of 23 and 5 led by senior guard Greg Williams Jr. who is a commit to St John’s University.
Saint Mary’s Tigers were coming off a great contest Monday night to get to the Championship game against a tough Hamilton Christian Warrior team. Saint Mary’s has been led all season by the stellar play of sophomore Thomas Howell standing 6 feet, 7 inches and averaging a double double each game and swatting opponent shots like flies at a summer picnic. The atmosphere for the game was again electric as the visiting Tigers filled the stands with dedicated fans making Burton blue. The opening tip was controlled by the Tigers and the first score came on a Howell to Howell connection, big brother to little brother in age not size. The Knights answer with a field goal by Pierre Dupree. Saint Mary’s settled into zone defense for the first time all season to try and slow the guard play of the Knights.
Thomas Howell gets fouled by Howard and sinks both free throws. Aaron Howell is fouled by Williams Jr. and can only sink one of two. Parker Bankston drives the lane all the way to the baseline and scores a reverse layup under the goal. T. Howell throws down a slam from Jared Elie as he drives the lane and the Tigers have an early five point lead 9 – 4 at the 3 minute mark of the first period. Things would go cold for both teams until about 36 seconds remained. Lafayette Christian patiently runs their half court offense on inbounds plays after scores by the Tigers and they look to push the pace on rebounds in transition. Dupree fouls T. Howell as he gets a rebound tip in and is unable to make the old fashioned “and one” play. At the end of one, Tigers lead 11-9 shooting 33 percent from the floor and going toe to toe with the Knights. The second quarter starts with the Knights scoring off offensive rebounds and second shot opportunities. The officials are letting the teams play physical basketball and it’s difficult to get a foul called on any violation. The game is knotted up at 11 after Dupree scores after picking the pocket of Shelton, and here come the Knights. A. Howell gets a put back rebound to go after a long three from Bankston. The score is tied at 13 with 4:52 and the Knights get their first lead of the game off a 3 point shot by Dupree, 16-13 Knights. It would be the turning point in the game. Dupree gets another two points off a fast break. Saint Mary’s turns the ball over and Lafayette Christian scores after three offensive rebounds.
Williams Jr. gets in the action with a steal for points and a rebound tip in score. Bankston misses a long three and the Knights score again in fast transition and an easy layup. Kailen Thibodaux scores for the Knights and the deficit is 11 for Saint Mary’s 26-15. The Knights have gone on a 13 to 2 run since the 5:41 mark of the second period. Lafayette Christian got the lead and forced the Tigers to transition back to a man to man defense. The change proved valuable for the Knights as it allowed their guards to go to work on the Tigers. LCA enters the locker room with 11 offensive boards in the first half and is led by Dupree with 13 points. Sixteen minutes would determine a State title. The second half opens with Lafayette Christian missing a 3 point shot from beyond the arch. Elie is fouled after two trips down the court for both squads.
He is perfect from the line and the score is 26-17 Knights leading. It would be the closest the Tigers could get. The wheels fall of the bus for Saint Mary’s and the Knights go on another 11 to 3 run bringing the score to 37 – 20 Lafayette Christian. Bankston and the Tigers know no quit though. Bankston’s tenacious defensive play results in a steal and score off Dupree and the Tigers enter the fourth quarter down by 15 points 37-22. Saint Mary’s has been outscored 28 – 11 in the last two quarters and the deficit will become insurmountable for the Tigers. LCA scores first in the fourth with Williams on the free throw line after being fouled by Bankston. Elie scores on the dribble drive to the lane. T. Howell has as many as four Knights on him when he gets the ball in the paint. The overwhelming pressure doesn’t dissuade the play of the big man. He gets three offensive rebounds before finally getting the ball in for a score to make it 44-26 and half of the final period has expired. The defending champs seem destined to repeat against the second seed Tigers. Both teams have held the first and second spot in the rankings all season long. T. Howell makes one more power statement on an assist from Patrick Walker.
He rattles them rim one last time as a rising sophomore, possibly the best in the state with a very bright future. Coach Jason Kern elects to put his seniors in the game to close out a storied season as the Tigers finish as the runner-up in Division IV. This was quite a feat for a team that only won three games when these seniors were eighth graders.
Coach Byron Starks on the victory, “A great game by Saint Mary’s, they gave us a good punch to start the game. Our game plan was to make it a guard game because they have a big body in the middle. Once we had the lead we were able to force them out of the zone and break them with our guard play.”
Coach Kern on the second place finish, “I’m so proud of these kids, didn’t quit ever and showed a lot of heart today.” When asked about the experience of a State title run T. Howell said, “This is unreal. We all wanted to do this and it ended up a little different than we wanted but it was amazing coming down here and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.” Saint Mary’s basketball, you have epitomized Tiger pride.
Twenty-five teams entered postseason play in Division IV and you emerged in the second spot. What a year, what a run at a title that was just out of reach and T. Howell you are something special to watch on the court.