MAROA — Central A&M is on a mission to make some history at the Macon County Tournament.
The Raiders have never won the tournament title since the school's creation in 1992 and last year they fell short in the championship game to St. Teresa.
This year's Raiders team faced their biggest challenge of the year thus far from Warrensburg-Latham but hung on to win 57-51 in the semifinals Thursday.
"Tonight was definitely our biggest challenge. Warrensburg is a great team and they are really well coached and they know how to give us a great look," Raiders senior guard Connor Heaton said. "We are pretty hyped up right now so everyone is going to bring their A game against us and we are not going to be overlooked like we were last year. (Warrensburg) has some really good guards and they are smart and they are all good shooters. They were a great test for us."
Central A&M (4-0) led throughout the first half — 11-8 after the first quarter and 29-20 at halftime — but went cold in the third quarter as Cardinals shooters Tanner Dawson and Jarius Ingram led Warrensburg (7-3) back and took the lead 34-33 with 1:37 left in the quarter. Ingram finished with a game-high 23 points for Warrensburg.
"Warrensburg was really good defensively tonight and I thought we played good defense as well. It was sort of a defensive struggle between two teams early in the season," Central A&M coach Rob Smith said.
Clutch shooting from Raiders junior Brycen Burgener, who finished with 13 points, and a 3-pointer from Austin Sloan as the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter put the Raiders back up 43-36.
"I was happy with how we responded. We got the lead and they came back and that happened a couple times," Smith said. "I thought a key to the game was (Austin's) late 3-pointer at the third quarter buzzer. I was proud of our kids, they were pretty relentless and took the punches."
When one part of the Raiders game isn't working, they look for Plan B.
"I think we struggled shooting the ball tonight and coach was telling us that teams are going to play us tough, and if we are not shooting well we have to find another way to win," Heaton said. "I think we had a great defensive game tonight. We have to find what is working and go with that."
Against Warrensburg, "Plan B" stood for Burgener.
"Brycen stepped up a lot tonight. He really didn't play a whole lot last year but he stepped up tonight," Heaton said. "He hit big shot after big shot and he is just a really smart player and knows where to be at the right time. He's making plays and he is a great addition for us this year."
As the fourth quarter wound down and the Raiders still led, their offense was led by Heaton's free throws, giving Central A&M the six-point victory.
"I like the pressure. I like giving me the pressure at the end," Heaton said. "I feel comfortable in my free throws and I just think anyone on our team can knock down free throws and even if we miss it we will come down and get a stop or a rebound."
The Raiders will face Meridian in the tournament championship Friday at 7:30 p.m. and a possible date with school history.
"We've never won this tournament in the history of A&M ever and we have talked about that so we would like to be the team from A&M that gets the chance to do that," Smith said.
Meridian 49, St. Teresa 38
Meridian was anxious to get the St. Teresa monkey off its back and the Hawks did just that.
The Bulldogs had won the previous 10 meetings with Meridian, including four game last season.
But in the semifinals, the Hawks (8-2) were lights-out at the free-throw line, going 14-for-14.
"It has been a while since we have beaten St. Teresa. We obviously knew going in that it was going to be a tough matchup," Meridian coach Jay Driscoll said. "I was very proud of our guys, obviously 14-for-14 at the line is very difficult to do and shows some great concentration and we did a nice job down the stretch of finishing."
Meridian's Jacob Jones led all scorers with 18 points and Garrett Meisenhelter added 15 points.
"Jacob got into some early foul trouble but we put him back in there and had a big second quarter with six points," Driscoll saidl. "He and Garrett really carried us tonight. I thought our guards did a nice job of finding Garrett on the perimeter. Overall, I'm really pleased with how our team is maturing and St. Teresa is a really good team."
Meridian took just a one-point lead, 19-18, into the second half but pulled away in the third by holding the Bulldogs (1-3) to just seven points.
"We limited them on offense. We know that they do a good job on the offensive glass and driving and we really wanted to keep them out of the paint and force some tough shots," Driscoll said. "Limiting them to 38 points is a really good defensive effort for us."
Christian Stoner led the Bulldogs with 12 points and Tyler Phillips put in 11.
Meridian last won the Macon County Tournament in 2008 and Driscoll knows the Hawks will have a challenge in the championship against Central A&M.
"We are going to the finals and that was our goal from the beginning but we aren't just going to go to just be there, we want to compete and go after it," he said. "We know how talented (the Raiders) are and we respect their program. We are looking forward to the challenge."