(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
POPLAR BLUFF -- Greg Tucker has ice in his veins.
The Charleston guard has shown time and time again that faced with a nail biter during his senior season, he stays poised and is automatic from the free throw line down the stretch.
"That's the moment I practice hard for every day. Just to come through in the clutch," Tucker said.
Tucker's confidence pushed the Bluejays' past Crystal City on Saturday at Poplar Bluff High School during their Class 3 quarterfinal game. As the Hornets continued to chase Charleston, Tucker knocked down all 10 of his free throws in the fourth quarter guiding the Bluejays to a 71-63 win.
Charleston, who advanced to their 20th Show Me Showdown in school history, will play Mount Vernon in the semifinals at the Hearnes Center on Thursday.
"They just feel like regular free throws," the composed Tucker said. "I just go on to the next play after that."
The Northern Colorado signee scored 23 of his game high 32 points in the second half -- 14 in the fourth -- as he took the role of a spurner towards Crystal City's advances late in the game.
"It seems like it's just automatic. I'm thrilled to death when I see him on the line," Charleston head coach Danny Farmer said about Tucker. "He has to step up in those moments for our team to be what it is. He has to step up and he does it. That's a sign of a very good ball player."
The Bluejays (29-2) couldn't quite put Crystal City behind them. Led by Eli Sample, the Hornets pulled even with Charleston at the halfway point in the fourth after a basket by Sample, who finished with a team high 23 points.
"Eli had a great game," Crystal City head coach Sean Breeze said. "Just like the Tucker kid, Eli is our go-to guy and he kept us in it."
Following Sample's tying bucket, Tucker hit 10 consecutive free throws in the final four minutes.
"Tuck's our best player," junior Ryan Parham said. "He really takes his free throw shooting seriously and we expect him to make them when he gets to the free throw line. It's two points when he goes to the line."
Although Tucker kept swishing from the line, the Hornets kept pursuing. Back to back 3-pointers from Nick Rothweiler and Dane Russell pulled Crystal City to within two points with 1:10 left in the quarter.
Charleston's ferocious ways on defense would soon come into play.
The Bluejays took away three passes in the final minute to spark a 9-3 run to close out the game. Tucker, Trey Watkins and Aaron Cassell, who had five steals to go along with six points, all swiped away careless passes from the Hornets down the stretch to seal it.
"The key to Charleston is you can't turn the ball over and you've got to keep them out of the paint," Breeze said. "I thought they did a great job in the second half of getting to the paint and the Tucker kid getting in there and drawing fouls."
Tucker, who at times in the first half took too many off balanced shots and just couldn't get into his rhythm offensively, charged the rim in the second half.
"I started relaxing more and picking my spots better," Tucker said about his second half turnaround. "We spread the court a lot better in the second half and that really opened a lot of things up for us."
Behind Tucker, junior Ryan Parham scored 17 points and added five assists while 6-2 senior Krushon Scott gave Charleston an inside presence with eight points and 10 rebounds.
Crystal City, who will graduate 10 seniors from a 25-5 team, withstood an early push by Charleston with above-par shooting in the first half.
Sample drained a 3-pointer to give the Hornets their first lead of the game, 11-10, at the end of the first quarter. The Hornets carried that momentum with them into the second rattling off a 10-3 run to grab their biggest lead of the night, 18-13.
"They have a lot of size and they can clog up the lane pretty good," said Tucker. "They contested our shots really well, but it was our job to keep attacking them."
The Bluejays responded with a 14-2 run to give them a 27-20 advantage.
Charleston led 29-25 at the half.
A 7-point lead by Charleston late in the third was squandered by a 3-pointer by 6-7 Bryan Degeare, who ended with five points, 10 rebounds and six blocks, and a bucket by Sample.
"They played as a unit," Parham said. "They had good offense, good ball movement, rebounded. We don't have a lot of height so we just have to battle down low and use our speed and quickness to win games."
Charleston took a 48-44 lead with them into the final eight minutes.
"When you get to this point, you're not going to have an easy game," Farmer said. "We're going to have to respond to every challenge and we did."
Charleston's quest for a state championship will begin at 6:40 p.m. Thursday.
"It's straight business," Tucker said about heading to state for the second year in a row. "There's no playing around. We're just going to go up there and win it."
CRYSTAL CITY (63) -- Eli Sample 23, Dane Russell 14, Stacey Thornton 1, Nick Rothweiler 8, Kyle Jones 12, Bryan Degeare 5. FG 25 FT 4-9 F 19 (3-pointers: Sample 1, Russell 4, Rothweiler 2, Jones 1, Degeare 1. Fouled out: Thornton.)
CHARLESTON (71) -- Aaron Cassell 6, Ryan Parham 17, Trey Watkins 1, Greg Tucker 32, Jamaul Gray 2, Sumner Foster 3, Krushon Scott 8, Darrion Carter 2. FG 25 FT 17-24 F 17 (3-pointers: Parham 1, Tucker 2, Foster 1. Fouled out: none.)