HANNIBAL • As the final seconds ticked off the clock, James Mitchell felt like a free man.
One of Lutheran North’s top senior guards, Mitchell was ejected from North’s sectional victory last week, which meant he had to sit out of the Crusaders’ Class 3 quarterfinal game Saturday at Hannibal.
So when the Crusaders took the floor against Elsberry, Mitchell was uppermost in their minds.
“We tried to play harder because we knew James couldn’t be out there,” North junior Anthony Virdure said. “He’s a senior, and we wanted him to get to play another game.”
Mitchell could get a couple more now as Virdure scored 16 points to help the Crusaders top Elsberry 61-51 for a spot in the Class 3 semifinals. Lutheran North (24-7) will face Hogan Prep on Thursday at 8:20 p.m. at the Hearnes Center in Columbia.
No one was more thrilled than Mitchell, who got tangled up with a Ritter player while fighting for a rebound during last week’s sectional victory.
“It was an unfortunate accident (at Meramec),” said Mitchell, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. “Right now I’m just happy that the guys pulled it out and I’ve got a chance to live (another game). I appreciate my team.”
So does North coach Brent Rueter. Without Mitchell, Rueter turned to senior guard Colbren Thompson, who delivered in a big way.
North led 14-12 after one quarter, but four second-quarter 3-pointers from Thompson — his only points of the day — helped the Crusaders open up a 34-24 halftime advantage.
Elsberry coach Ryan Parker said it was a game-changing flurry.
“It was a kid who probably wasn’t on our scouting report well enough,” Parker said. “It was just one of those things where he caught fire and there was really nothing we could do about it.
“We knew we couldn’t play (North) in man, because they are too athletic for us. If he doesn’t go off, who knows what happens.”
Elsberry trailed 42-36 heading to the fourth and closed to 50-47 with 2:19 to play. But a bucket by North’s DeVante Harrell, who finished with 14 points and eight boards, extended the lead to five points. North hit six of nine free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
Elsberry (27-3) got a game-high 19 points from Matthew Loesing. Senior Brennen Hurley, who made four treys, finished with 16 points.
It's North's first trip back to the final four since 2008, when it lost to Maplewood-Richmond Heights 56-55 on a last-second bucket by Bryant Allen.
Rueter figured Mitchell's absence would motivate his players.
"We played as a team all year," Rueter said. "We don't have a star system. So, they were ready for it."