Charleston, with an 81-79 quarterfinal win over the Career Academy Phoenix of St. Louis on Saturday at the Farmington Civic Center, advanced to the MSHSAA Class 3 Final Four for the third straight year.
"We've had to fight and claw our way to state, but we've played tough people and we know what wars are like," said Charleston coach Danny Farmer. "We've overcome some battles to make it to this Final Four. That was our plan; that was our goal.
"They're all sweet, but this one is a little sweeter because we lost four of our top six players from last year. To get back with four new players, playing three sophomores the whole year, then beat senior-oriented teams like Portageville, Kelly and Career Academy, that's great, that's really great."
After a sluggish 5-7 start, Charleston (21-9) has gone 16-2, the two losses against state-ranked Class 5 teams, Jackson and Poplar Bluff.
In Saturday's quarterfinal, the battle-tested Bluejays needed all the resolve they could muster against an equally quick and athletic Career Academy team.
"We were playing against a storybook program," said Career Academy coach Michael Brown, whose team suffered a quarterfinal loss to Charleston for the second straight season. "They're not going to roll over and die. They're well coached and Ashton Farmer's a monster."
With the score knotted at 74 at the 1:01 mark, Farmer, Charleston's lone senior starter, took charge.
The 6-foot-6 Farmer said, "I have to step up. That's my job, to be vocal and show leadership on the court. I think we earned this one."
Farmer's two consecutive buckets lifted the Bluejays to a 78-74 advantage. Career Academy's Chad Thompson narrowed the gap to 78-76 with 19.8 seconds left, then Farmer, making his fourth consecutive state quarterfinal appearance, was fouled with 14.1 seconds remaining.
He buried two huge free throws, which on this night of mediocre free-throw shooting, was no cinch.
"He's been doing that throughout the playoff series," said Danny Farmer. "When we need a free throw, he can do it because he's been here before. That was the difference down the stretch, our experience in these types of games."
Neither team sparkled at the line, however. Charleston hit 10-of-20, while Career Academy went 10-of-22.
"Basic basketball," said Academy's Brown, shaking his head. "Free throws, blocking out at the free-throw lane, that's just basic basketball. They got four points because we didn't box out on missed free throws. That hurt us."
With Charleston ahead 80-76 and six seconds on the clock, there was to be no rise of the Phoenix as they botched two critical free-throw attempts.
Jamarcus Williams' single from the stripe at 3.8 seconds preceded a buzzer-
beating 3-pointer which shaved the final margin to two.
It's likely that Farmer, who finished with 21 points, may not have had an opportunity for late-game heroics, had it not been for the talented sophomore Williams.
The 6-4, 15-year-old turned in a man-sized performance with 30 points and 14 rebounds, most in crucial situations.
"He's a winner,' said Danny Farmer. "He's a tremendous rebounder and he can take it to another level."
Williams scored 21 of his career-high 30 in the second half -- 13 in the fourth quarter. Unable to get his shots to fall early, Williams missed nine of his first ten shots, then turned it around with 12-of-14 accuracy the rest of the way.
"After Coach took me out, I got to think and then I was all right," said Williams, who was benched briefly in the first quarter.
Charleston trailed 20-18 after the first period, but it could have been worse.
While Career Academy was shooting a hot 69 percent from the field -- 9-of
-13 overall, 8-of-10 2s -- the Bluejays were misfiring on 15 of 23 shot attempts, but 10 first-quarter Phoenix turnovers helped to keep the score close.
Career Academy (23-7) held a 38-35 lead at the half.
Five-seven sophomore ball-handling wizard Chris Stokes fueled the Phoenix' first-half effort with 14 of his team-high 29 points on a variety of jaw-
Said Brown, "He's one of those special players that only comes through once every blue moon. We just try to open up the floor and let him be himself. We don't want to stifle his creativity."
Career Academy's season scoring leader Thompson added 18 points, the only other Phoenix player in double figures.
Opening the third quarter, Charleston went on a 9-0 run to overtake the Phoenix at 42-38.
During the run, the Bluejays and their fans held their collective breaths when Farmer went down hard when undercut on a dunk. Shaken and temporarily removed from the lineup, his replacement Josh Thompson stepped to the line and sank the free throw for a 40-38 lead.
The Bluejays twice held lead margins of six -- 50-44 and 52-46 -- before settling for a 53-all tie as the period closed.
Charleston, with Williams grabbing critical rebounds and scoring on stickbacks, took a 65-60 lead midway through the final quarter.
But the Phoenix, while Farmer sat with his fourth personal foul, came rushing back with seven straight points, aided by two Bluejay turnovers, to snatch the lead back at 67-65.
Two buckets by Stokes -- a 2-pointer and one of his game-high four 3-
pointers -- sparked the rally.
On his return, Farmer sank a free throw followed by a Williams's bucket as the 'Jays retook the lead at 68-67.
Then Charleston's clever sophomore point guard, Shawn Sherrell, answered his counterpart, Stokes, to put the Bluejays ahead once again at 70-69.
Sherrell, who scored 13 for Charleston, nearly matched Stokes' ball-handling and elusiveness. Although he didn't shoot a high percentage on his field-goal attempts, Sherrell's ability to penetrate and get off the shot opened scoring opportunities for teammates.
Sherrell's performance prompted praise from the opposing coach.
"That other guard over there is pretty good, too," said Brown.
Thompson's layup, off a Farmer assist, increased the 'Jays' edge to 72-69 before Career Academy pulled into yet another deadlock at 72. The teams traded baskets for the final tie at 74.
Coach Farmer cited the teamplay and gutsy effort of the Bluejays. "I don't think you can point to any one thing as being the key (to victory)," said Farmer. "It was the overall team play. We just kept fighting, we never got down, we just kept trying, trying, trying.
"This is a team," he added, emphatically. "Everybody played a role and pitched in."
Charleston meets Kansas City's Hogan Prep Academy (19-8), a 54-45 quarterfinal winner over Smithville, in a semifinal on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at the Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
CAREER ACADEMY (79) -- Jayvonte Hughes 6, Chad Thompson 18, Courtney Wingo 6, Anton Smith 5, Fred Miller 8, Chris Stokes 29, Marcel Taylor-Smith 7. FG 27, FT 10-22, F 20. (3-pointers: Stokes 4, Wingo 1. Fouled out: Smith).
CHARLESTON (81) -- Shawn Sherrell 13, Jamarcus Williams 30, Ashton Farmer 21, Justin Clark 8, Tavis Hamilton 4, Josh Thompson 5. FG 31, FT 10-20, F 16. (3-pointers: Clark 2, Sherrell 1. Fouled out: Hamilton).