For the first two full games and 31 minutes and 25 seconds of his team's games so far this season, Ladue High junior point guard Cornell Johnston ran circles around the defenses from Clayton, Eureka, and Belleville West High Schools.
But in the final 35 seconds of Friday's 46th Annual Jerry Boeckman Memorial/Vianney Invitational Tournament championship game, Belleville West managed to catch up with Johnston and forced a critical turnover and a missed shot in the final seconds that allowed the Maroons to escape with a 52-51 win over the Rams.
"It was a hard fought game," Ladue head coach Chad Anderson said. "We knew we had to match their intensity. I thought our kids battled, and for both teams I think it was difficult to score."
It certainly was in the final six minutes, as Ladue only managed two baskets and a couple of free throws down the stretch, after grabbing a 46-37 lead following a three-point play by sophomore Jeremy Loftin.
Belleville West closed the game by outscoring Ladue 15-5 in that final six minutes, with leading scorer Nick Van Osdale finding reserve forward Donnie Foster for a short bucket that gave the Maroons the final lead with just 16 seconds left on the clock.
"It was a great play by Nick," West head coach Joe Muniz said. "I told him, if they doubled him to look for the open man, and he found Donnie, who had a 6'9 guy (Ladue's Austin DaGue) behind him, but he still laid it in."
Belleville West got its chance to take the lead on that play, after a controversial call on the other end resulted in a turnover on Ladue.
The Rams had spread the floor, and were trying to force West to foul them or let the clock ran out. But after a frantic series a passes, Johnston found himself with the ball, but was backed up against the half-court line.
He tried elude the West defense by going around defender Isiah Lewis. But as he escaped, the officials ruled that Johnston stepped into the backcourt, which is a violation, and awarded the ball to the Maroons.
"I'm not sure if he stepped on the line or over the line or not," Anderson said. "But I thought he was bumped. It was a physical game. I thought that should have been a foul call right there."
Unfortunately, that was just the first questionable call that went against Ladue.
Following Foster's bucket that gave West the lead, Johnston made a move to the basket in the final seconds and was knocked to the floor by West's Markkies Goodwin, who also blocked the Ladue point guard's shot.
The officials ruled it was a clean play, and no foul was called.
Goodwin grabbed the rebound and held on as the clock ran out.
"It was a lot of contact, but I thought it was a clean play," Muniz said. "We told Markkies to be ready to step in if he penetrated, and that's what he did. It was a great block."
The defeat proved a bitter pill to swallow for the Rams, several of whom left the locker room following the game with tears in the eyes.
"They're taking it hard, a lot harder than me," Anderson said. "But they just really wanted to win this for themselves and our school and for Ladue basketball.
"We feel like Ladue basketball is finally starting to get the respect it deserves, and we kind of looked at this tournament as our chance to show we belong with some of the other big boys out there."
Following the game, Johnston and DaGue were named to the All-Tournament Team, as were Van Osdale and Lewis of Belleville West.
The other players named to the All-Tournament squad were A.J. Joseph of Clayton, Tyler Jordan of Eureka, D.J. Hardy of Farmington, DeMarco Buchanan of Hazelwood Central, Darnell Tillman of University City, and Sean O'Brien of the host school Vianney.
Score by Quarters ............. 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 -- Final Score
Ladue .............................. 12 . 12 . 14 . 13 -- 51
Belleville West ................ 15 .. 9 .. 10 . 18 -- 52
Vianney Tournament Championship Game
UPCOMING LADUE RAMS BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Tue., Dec. 4 ----- at Brentwood -------------- 7 pm
Fri., Dec. 7 ------ at Parkway North --------- 7 pm
Wed., Dec. 12 -- vs. John Burroughs ------- 7 pm
(Ladue's first game on the new floor at LHWHS' Neilsen Gymnasium)
Thur., Dec. 13 -- at Westminster Christian -- 7 pm
Sat., Dec. 14 --- vs. Ft. Zumwalt North at Lindenwood --- 10 am
(Ramey Shootout at Lindenwood's Hyland Arena)
Dec. 22-29 MICDS Holiday Tournament TBA