With one minute remaining in their careers, six seniors from Crane High School took the time to hug one another before the final horn.
They took a moment to themselves on the bench before time expired and Crane completed winning its fourth Class 2 girls basketball state championship in four years. Moments later, they stood together holding hands and holding up the last state championship trophy they would win together.
“I was excited, kind of sad that it came to an end — last time playing with all of them,” senior Justine Mahan said.
Crane’s four state championships go deeper than high school. Mahan, Lexie Vaught, Kylee Moore, Shelby Roder, Keren Belin and Emma Lander have played sports together since they were very young. As they grew up, they built one of the greatest basketball dynasties Missouri has ever had.
“We started this thing when we were four years old together, just getting to finish it together is hard. It’s really hard, but like Coach (Mullins) told me, that’s what happens in life. Things come to an end. I’m just so thankful for the memories we’ve made,” Lander said.
Crane’s dominance on the court allowed the seniors to share a sentimental moment during a game.
Lander is a two time all-state basketball selection and last season’s Class 2 player of the year, but her college future is to a be volleyball player and track and field jumper at Evangel University. Lander tore her ACL in the eighth game of the season, but checked into the state championship 78-57 win over Neelyville and stood on the court for 14 seconds with her surgically repaired knee in a brace.
Moore is also going to Evangel, where she will play basketball.
Vaught, a future Drury Panther, made a case for herself to be the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Class 2 player of the year with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in the title game.
Coach Jeremy Mullins has a pair of “coach of the year” awards with the 2016 selection yet to be made.
Numbers make Mullins look like a coaching superstar, but don’t underestimate how much he cares for the players who won 123 games and lost just seven in four years.
“They mean the world. They’re going to write stories about them,” Mullins said, then paused to swallow a lump in his throat. “It’s over, but it’s been one heck of a ride.”
They now stand among legends. Crane becomes the fifth team in the history of high school girls basketball in Missouri to pull off a four-peat after Northeast Nodaway (1976-79), Marshfield (1988-91), St. Joseph’s Academy (1991-94) and Rock Bridge (2012-15).
“They’ve taken it to another level. They really did. I mean, I can honestly say these guys are up there with some of the best, the best teams in the state of Missouri ever. I was never afraid to put them on the floor against anybody, because I knew. I’ve seen them practice, I’ve been with them, and I believe if I told them they could run through a wall, they would go try,” Mullins said.
Mullins recalled a conversation he had with his assistant coach Billy Redus prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, the freshman year for the special six.
“We talked about it being a possibility, one or two state titles, but they kind of surprised us there that first year being freshmen, being that young,” Mullins said. “It’s been a very fortunate program to be a part of, very special with the combination of girls, the talent, the parents, the community, and of course the coaches. It’s been very special.”
Before they made the trip to Columbia, Crane’s players shared an emotional and private moment in their own gym, which opened prior to the start of this season.
“We talked about that the other day before our last practice in our Crane gym. This is the last time this exact team will be together in that gym,” Mullins said. “It kind of hit them hard. It’s going to hurt, but it’s part of life, it’s part of growing.”
Crane finished the season 32-1, with its only loss coming at the hands of Arkansas Class 7A state champion North Little Rock in the White Division final of the 2015 Pink and White Lady Classic.
“The Pink and White championship would have been nice, but that didn’t work out very well,” Vaught said.
“We had a heart to heart about that one,” Mullins added. “It got serious in the locker room, so I think we grew from that loss.”
Every time they stepped on the floor, the Pirates drew the opposition’s best effort. That happened again in the state semifinals, when Crane squeaked by Skyline 56-50 in the fourth playoff semifinal or final meeting between the teams in four years.
“If you’re going to beat a team, you want to beat them at their best. That’s what I look forward to every time,” Vaught said.
Skyline coach Kevin Cheek complimented Crane’s basketball seniors moments after Skyline rebounded to win third place.
“I might go to their graduation and make sure that they get out the door,” Cheek joked. “We’re excited that we got the opportunity. There’s probably a lot of teams in the state of Missouri that would like to say, ‘Yeah, they beat us four years in a row in the state tournament.’”
Crane’s special six got to walk off the court together with an ending fit for a movie.
“What better game to be your last game than the state championship?” Belin said.
The Crane girls basketball dynasty
Through the years
All-state players: Emma Lander, Lexie Vaught
Other awards: Emma Lander named Class 2 player of the year, Jeremy Mullins named Class 2 coach of the year
All-state players: Chandra Israel, Emma Lander
All-state players: Maggie McMenamy, Chandra Israel
Other awards: Jeremy Mullins named Class 2 coach of the year