NEOLA, Iowa — On a night when points were at a premium, it made sense that a player known for his offense registered the game's biggest play on defense.
As Andrew O'Neal attempted to cut Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto's deficit to one point with just more than a minute left, Travis Miller made the block with his left hand and was eventually fouled. He converted both free throws to send Council Bluffs St. Albert on its way to a 46-39 Class 1-A district final victory at Tri-Center High School.
"The play before he had done the exact same thing down the lane, so I didn't think he was going to pass," said the 6-foot-3 Miller of his sixth block of the season.
The victory moved western Iowa No. 4 (Class 2-A/1-A) St. Albert within a game of its 12th state appearance. The Falcons (14-9) will attempt to secure it in Saturday's 7 p.m. Substate 8 final against Stanton (22-2) at Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson. Western Iowa No. 5 MVAO ends its season at 21-3.
MVAO coach Brian Brown said the Falcons' size and physicality were the difference. His team shot 29.6 percent from the field.
"We've played hard all yearlong, but we aren't used to playing kids that are as big as us or bigger," he said. "So they're looking back behind them just a little bit as they're going up to shoot. And they did affect some shots."
The Rams have an outstanding defensive team as well, and St. Albert failed to register the knockout punch after it moved ahead 36-26 with 6:05 left on Matt Fagan's hoop. Conor Collins' 3-pointer capped an 8-0 run to pull MVAO within 36-34 with 4:20 to go.
Miller, St. Albert's leading scorer at 15.6 per game, answered with a lean-in bank shot to push it back to four. After O'Neal's 19-footer cut it to two again, Miller took a crisp pass from Fagan and buried a 3 to push it back to 41-36 with 3:13 remaining.
O'Neal's basket trimmed it to three and the Falcons missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Miller came through with his key block and free throws. The Rams missed and Miller saved the ball to Drew Carlson. That led to a Tyler Blaha free throw with 36.1 seconds left to push it to 44-38, and the Rams didn't get closer the rest of the way.
The Falcons had numerous clutch contributions. Joe Liston, a 6-7 sophomore reserve, scored seven of his nine points in the second half, all at the free-throw line. Carlson, a 6-3 senior, led all scorers with 13 points, including 10 in the first half when the Rams were focused on containing Miller.
O'Neal led MVAO with 12, Juan Delagarza added 11 and Colby Seuntjens had 10. The Rams graduated their top four scorers from last year's 1-A state runnerup.
"Not many teams get to 20 wins and they've done it two years in a row," Brown said. "Coming into the season, probably not a lot of people would have expected us to get to 20 wins. They've got a lot to be proud of."
Stanton avenges defeat
RED OAK, Iowa — Brady Johnson just wanted a second chance.
The Stanton senior wasn't especially pleased the last time he and his teammates faced Bedford. The hot-shooting Bulldogs blitzed Stanton for 45 first-half points and made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the game on their way to a 80-54 victory Feb. 12 in Bedford.
Not quite two weeks later, Johnson and the Vikings found themselves with another opportunity against Bedford in Thursday's Class 1-A, District 15 final. And when asked if he was eager for the chance, the 6-foot-3 Johnson was quick to answer.
"Oh, yes," he said. "I wanted to avenge our loss from when we got smoked by them last time."
Johnson got his wish. Stanton used a 9-0 fourth-quarter run to seize control of the game down the stretch on its way to a 64-53 triumph Thursday.
The victory advanced the Vikings (22-2) to Saturday's 7 p.m. substate final at Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson, where they will face St. Albert (14-9) for a shot at qualifying for their first state tournament since 1997. Bedford ends its season at 16-8.
The Vikings trailed by 10 points with 5:51 to go in the second quarter, but they managed to chip away using an effective 3-2 zone defense that limited the Bulldogs' ability to penetrate the lane and rebound. The strategy paid off as Bedford made just 7 of 26 3-pointers and was outrebounded 38-27.
"They do things a little differently. They don't cut quite as well as they do against the man," Stanton co-coach Kevin Blunt said. "We had to hope that they wouldn't be hot from 3 like they were the first time. We played the chances a little bit, and it kept us in it."
Also helping matters was the play of David Sorensen. The 5-foot 10 senior scored a game-high 24 points and added four steals, three rebounds and three assists. He scored 12 of Stanton's 22 fourth-quarter points to help seal the outcome, and he was happy his team got another chance to play the Bulldogs.
"We weren't ready to play last time," Sorensen said. "We wanted to beat them because we lost so bad the first time. They're a great team. We just wanted to make a statement."
Drake Johnson joined Sorensen in double figures with 13 points. Alex Becthold finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Brady Johnson narrowly missed a double-double with nine points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
In a game that featured teams with a combined 15 seniors, Carroll sophomore guard Cooper Ross stole the show Thursday down the stretch of the Class 3-A District 1 final.
Ross scored 16 of his game-high 18 points in the second half and overtime, including all five Tiger points in the extra stanza, to lead Carroll to a 58-57 upset win over Class 3-A No. 5 Harlan.