COLUMBIA, Mo. • It was a month ago to the day the Madison Prep boys basketball team loaded up a bus and motored down Interstate 70 for a big game in Columbia.
That day in February, the Bears were due for a date at Hickman, the No. 1 team in Missouri Class 5.
“Coming down here (to play Hickman), it was an opportunity for us to get on 70 and show them this is the route. That we want to try and get back down here,” Madison coach Tony Irons said.
The Bears lost that game at Hickman in the waning moments, but they were better for it.
They haven’t lost since.
A month later, Madison returned to Columbia and walked away with a convincing 67-52 win over St. Pius X (Kansas City) in the Class 3 state championship Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Madison (31-2), the No. 1 team in the STLhighschoolsports.com small-schools rankings, wins the title in its first year of existence. The St. Louis Public Schools opened Madison as a place for the displaced students of the defunct Imagine College Prep, which closed at the end of last school year. Imagine was the Class 4 fourth-place team last season with the same core of players as Madison.
The Bears accomplished their goal of winning the title, but it took a total team effort. Five players scored in double figures, as senior guard Martavian Payne led the way with 15 points. Eric Clark, Miles Nettles, Ant Lee and Kevin Baker all chipped in 12 points each. It was a stunning display of balance for a team that has often relied on the skilled Payne and Baker to carry much of the scoring load.
“Everybody had to step up today, it was our last game and everybody had to give all they had,” Clark said. “And we did, as a team.”
St. Pius (27-7) was able to defend and rebound well enough to keep it close, as Madison led 22-17 at the half. As they have most of the postseason, the Bears began the third quarter with a fury. They went on a 5-0 run, forcing a St. Pius timeout. They were relentless in their defensive pressure, which fed their offense. The Warriors were unable to weather the storm, as they turned the ball over 21 times. Madison was credited with 16 steals, as Clark, Lee and Payne each had four. Nettles added three.
“They’re fast, they’re really fast. I just don’t think we came out with the energy we needed to handle the speed and the pressure,” St. Pius senior guard Brian Kaufmann said. “It’s hard to replicate that in practice. We’ve seen it before. We didn’t handle it like we should have tonight.”
Nicholas Morgan led St. Pius with 15 points and Luke Hoban added 11, but they were the only Warriors in double figures.
That the Bears were able to put the finishing touches on what has been an incredible season is a testament to their mental toughness. Irons, Clark, Payne and Baker have all said the uncertainty of Imagine closing was stressful. The players, and their coach, had no idea what the school year would bring. When SLPS opened Madison, it was a relief for the players and their coach.
“It was real frustrating. Nobody knew what school they were going to. Everybody was all split up doing their own thing in the summer,” Payne said.
Added Irons: “The hardest part of this was the uncertainty. We’re blessed the St. Louis Public Schools took us over and gave us a place to go to. They’re a group, when they say brothers, they really are.”
They are brothers who are going to go their separate ways. Baker, Payne, Nettles and Clark are the only seniors on the roster, but played the lion’s share of the minutes. That core group must now prepare for its next step.
“It hasn’t set in for me yet. I’m so happy for them to reach this goal. When we all settle down, it’s going to be a sad time for me to be with these guys as long as I’ve been,” Irons said. “Now they’re going on to take the next step of their lives and their careers. I’m blessed to be a part of our program and be a part of my family. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them, as I think it’s bright for all four of our seniors.”