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Jackson boys basketball reaches state final four for first time since 1937

Jackson boys basketball players gather after advancing to the Class 6 Final Four with a 40-36 victory over Eureka in the state quarterfinals Friday night at Jefferson College. Photo by Nick McNeal

Prior to the second world war, the Jackson boys basketball team won its lone state championship in 1934, which was also the same decade the program last advanced to the final four.

That changed last Friday night when the Indians (21-9) defeated Eureka (17-11) in the Class 6 Quarterfinals for Jackson to punch its ticket to state this weekend on the campus of Missouri State in Springfield.

Stepping up for the Indians per usual against the Wildcats was the team’s “big three” in senior post Clayton Ernst and juniors guard Blayne Harris and forward Judd Thoma. These three combined for 31 of Jackson’s final total as Thoma produced a game-high 14 points, while Ernst and Harris paced him with nine and eight, respectively.

“Judd balled out tonight — my nephew, I’m proud of him,” Indians first-year head coach Kory Thoma said. “He had some weak performances the last two games where he didn’t play as well, but he stepped up and had a heck of a game tonight.”

These three were also clutch at the free-throw line as Ernst finished 5-for-6 at the charity stripe, and Judd only missed two free throws on his six attempts. Even though Harris only attempted two in the entire game, he made back-to-back free throws in the final minutes for Jackson to secure a trip to its first final four in 86 years.

“We missed some free throws late I wish we would’ve — would’ve made my nerves a little bit better,” Coach Thoma laughed. “The big ones at the end of the game were huge — Blayne stepped up with a two-point lead and had ice in his veins. I wouldn’t have given the ball to anybody else than that kid right there.”

Also stepping up in the Indians historic win was sophomore guard Kole Deck, who filled in for senior guard Steven Schneider to play pivotal minutes off the bench. Schneider unfortunately rolled his ankle prior to the game. In replace of Steven, Deck scored two points off a pull-up jumper in the first quarter, where Jackson took a 8-7 lead.

“The credit goes to the kids — their effort was unbelievable,” Coach Thoma said. “[Schneider] is one of my crucial players, and he didn’t get to play tonight, so [Deck] stepped up and gave me good minutes. The rotations were off, but the kids that played a lot of minutes gave everything they had till the end of the game. It was very special to watch.”

Just like Jackson’s previous two games in the district tournament, this game was also a defensive battle as the score certainly shows. The Indians won their first district championship since 2020 with a 39-37 win over Kirkwood.

Harris scored a team-high 13 points for Jackson against Kirkwood, as Ernst paced him with nine of his own. Schneider came up big defensively off the bench with a game-high three steals, while sophomore guard Kolton Thoma paced him with two takeaways.

Ernst proved as he has all season to be arguably the biggest impact player for the Indians on the defensive end. Clayton blocked multiple shots in the paint while also deflecting several passes to force turnovers and make Eureka scratch its head offensively on how to score next.

“Eureka has played a lot of games in the 30’s and sometimes in the 20’s, so knew this was going to be a low-scoring game,” Coach Thoma said. “They’re very physical and very well coached — they motion very well, and they’re just a fun team to watch.

“Our defense was spot on tonight, and we stayed connected. We gave up some easy scores late because we were a little tired, but we did a heck of a job tonight.”

Eureka was able to hit three 3-pointers while Jackson had none, but Ernst and Thoma were able to work their way inside the paint between multiple defenders to score. Also coming up with five points was fellow starter in senior guard Kaed Windborne, who finished 3-for-5 at the charity stripe.

Jackson will now face Staley (28-2) in the state semifinals at 10 a.m. Friday at Great Southern Bank Arena.

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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