COLUMBIA -- New Madrid County Central will be chasing its third consecutive 3A state title this weekend at the Hearnes Center in Columbia.
The Eagles enter as the overwhelming favorite, having been ranked No. 1 in the state most of the year.
Standing between NMCC and this year's state trophy are three dangerous teams, all capable of pulling an upset. "Just back-to-back was tough enough," said NMCC coach Joby Holland. "Winning back-to-back-to-back will be that much tougher, but it's what the kids have set out to do all year. The kids won't be satisfied with just being there. We are going to win."
In Friday's semifinal games, NMCC takes on Kansas City's Westport Charter at 12:25 p.m. At 2 p.m., Mary Institute-Country Day will play Nixa.
The third-place game will take place on Saturday at 10:50 a.m., followed by the championship matchup at 2 p.m. Here's a look at this year's 3A Final Four teams:
Out of Kansas City's rugged District 14 comes the quick and super athletic Westport Charter Tigers.
"We're very excited about making it to state," said Westport head coach Roy Copeland. "This hasn't happened in 54 years at this school. Getting to state was the goal we set at the beginning of the season. We're hungry and we're focused on the task at hand. We really want to bring one back to Kansas City."
Offensively, the Tigers offer up a balanced attack. Guard Michael Jefferson (5-10, jr.) is the leading scorer with 15 points a game, followed by Jaron Thibeaux (6-1, sr.) at 14, Joshua Hudspeth (6-4, sr.) with 13 and sophomore Brandon Rush (6-6) with 12.
Rush is the younger brother of former Kansas City all-staters JaRon and Kareem Rush.
"I watched both of his brothers play when they were sophomores, and I think (Brandon) is just as good as they were at that time," said Copeland. "He plays big on the court and he's still got room to grow."
Much like Hickman Mills last year, Westport's record is tainted by an extremely tough schedule. The Tigers' five losses came to some of the Kansas City area's best teams.
"We're just excited about having a chance to play them," said Copeland.
"I think our schedule has prepared us. We played on the road most of the year and we came out of a real strong district. We play defense, but we can beat you with offense too. We really want to win it all."
On Feb. 22, Nixa was soaring sky-high after upsetting Ozark, the top ranked team in the state at the time, for the 3A District 11 title. But the very next day, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, Tony Black (14.3 ppg, 7.3 reb.), was suspended along with role player Dylan Collins.
"We've just tried to focus on the positives," said Nixa head coach Jay Osborne. "We had two key kids on our team that we're without right now. We're not as deep, and honestly, not as good. Two weeks ago I definitely felt like we could win (state). Tony was a man. He was physical, very strong and a very big inside scorer. Anybody in the state would've loved to have him."
Even with the player setback, Nixa was still able to beat Seneca in overtime 79-77 in sectionals, then cruised past conference foe Logan-Rogersville in Saturday's quarterfinals, 74-53.
The Eagles have won 20 straight.
"Right now, getting in the finals would be big for us," said Osborne. "I would like to get the opportunity to play New Madrid for 32 minutes and see if we could stay with them and have a chance to win at the end. We're small, but we're quick and we can shoot the ball well at times."
Nixa will face MICDS in the semifinal round.
"I'm not going to lie -- we're not as good as we were," said Osborne. "But we're still pretty good. I'll take this group of kids up there and match them up with anybody. Our school and our community has come together and our kids have been very focused. In a way, we've had a lot of positives come out of this."
Glennon Hayes (6-0, sr.) is Nixa's top available offensive threat, averaging 12 points a game. Forward Royce Moore (6-0, sr.) leads the team in rebounds with a little over five a game, scoring 10. Brandon Mabe and Tim Elwell each contribute just under eight points a night.
"We've had a great season," said Osborne.
Traditionally a football school, Country Day qualified for its first Final Four in basketball by beating St. Charles West in Saturday's quarterfinal, 45-43.
The Rams are led by sharpshooter Scott Stone (6-2, sr.), who has knocked down an incredible 77 three-pointers this year. He averages 21 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 45 percent from the floor.
Forward Avain Jordan (6-2, sr.) is averaging 11.8 points and leads the team with 7.5 rebounds. Jason Larkins (6-2, jr.) scores nine points a night and guard Erick Richardson (5-10, sr.) contributes 7.6.
As a team, the Rams average 61 points a game.
"I'm really proud of these guys," said MICDS head coach Don Maurer, who was fired by St. Louis University High last year. "It took a while for them to get to know me and the style of basketball I wanted them to play, but we've come together and right now we're really playing some great team basketball."
MICDS' three losses came to Whitfield, Lutheran North and John Burroughs. The Rams have since avenged all three, and are currently riding a 13-game win streak.
They will face Nixa in Friday's semifinals.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Joby Holland, NMCC set a school record for wins this year with a record of 27-3.
Holland took over the program from legendary coach Lennies McFerren, who guided the Eagles to state championships the last two years.
"The pressure is on us," said Holland. "Other teams can probably be satisfied with just being there, but our kids want to win it. Final Four teams get a trophy just for being there, but that's not good enough. We want to win that third one."
Dereke Tipler (5-10, sr.) is the most productive offensive player, averaging 20.3 points and 7.6 assists per game. Postman Ronland Ranson (6-4, sr.) has also turned it on the final few games, averaging 14.5 points and 10.9 rebounds.
Center Derrell Minner (6-8, sr.) is the leading rebounder with 12 boards and 10 points a night and Brian Murph (6-2, sr.) is scoring 10.2 with 6.2 rebounds on average. Terrance Smith (6-3, sr.) is the team's top defender. NMCC is riding an 11-game win streak.
"We've played real well the last few weeks," said Holland. "They're playing well together as a team and they're focused on what they want. These boys have been going at this for a few years, and they won't be satisfied until they finish it the right way. It has been a great season, but we want to win the whole thing."