Now the Saints firmly believe they can win their second state championship in a row.
The remarkable Saints bumped off top-ranked Waverly-Shell Rock, 47-41, in overtime Thursday night in the semifinals of the Class 3A state tournament at Wells Fargo Arena.
Xavier (15-11) will face Sergeant Bluff-Luton (17-9) in the championship game Saturday at 6:05 p.m.
Xavier and Waverly-Shell Rock slugged it out on defense all night in a low-scoring affair that featured 12 ties and nine lead changes in the 36-minute contest.
The Go-Hawks took a 41-38 lead on their first possession in overtime on a three-point play by All-American Austin Phyfe, but the Saints shut them out the rest of the way and finished the game with a 9-0 run for the gritty victory in Des Moines.
Xavier all-star Matt Mims gave the Saints the lead for good, 42-41, with a huge 3-pointer and the Saints came up with a series of big defensive stops from there.
Now the Saints are aiming for back-to-back state titles. That dismal start is long forgotten now.
"It's an incredible feeling," said Mims, who popped in 21 points. "We never stopped believing. Every day in practice we kept working hard and we never stopped believing.
"I'm so proud of this team. It's a great feeling, but we're not done yet," he said. "I can't wait for Saturday."
Phyfe, a tremendous talent at 6-foot-10, finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, but the big guy did not kill the Saints and they made him work for everything he got.
Max Techau had the initial task of trying to guard Phyfe, but he ran into foul trouble along the way. Bryce Schulte and Max Johnson, a pair of strong guys who will play college football next year, came off the bench to battle him at times. And Quinn Schulte regularly dropped off his man and pestered Phyfe as much as he could with double-teams.
"It was really physical," said Phyfe, a special talent who will play at Northern Iowa. "They were going with me, wherever I was going, trying to beat me to the spot.
"And once I caught it, they would be bringing two or three guys, trying to battle me and get me frustrated. Give a lot of credit to them. They did a good job."
Jackson Joens also stuck his nose into the fray on defense. "I got an elbow and was bleeding," he said, smiling about his battle scar. "It was a dog-fight."
Waverly-Shell Rock (23-2) whipped the Saints by 22 points, 76-54, in Waverly in the second game of the regular season Dec. 3, but the Saints are a much different team now.
The Saints went 4-9 in their first 13 games, but they've gone 11-and-2 in the last 13. Night and day.
"Four-and-nine is a little misleading when you play the second-toughest schedule in the state," offered Coach Ryan Luehrsmann. "There's a reason we scheduled a team from Nebraska and went over there and took our lumps. It was to prepare us for this.
"We feel like it gives us an advantage to play against the best," he said. "We're blessed to play in the MVC. It gets us ready for tonight.
"Once the regular season is over, everybody is zero-and-zero and right now we're 5-and-0. And that's where we want to be."
The five-game winning streak in the postseason includes two victories in the district tournament, a victory in the substate finals and now two victories at state with triumphs over the No. 7, No. 4 and No. 1 teams in Class 3A along the way.
Phyfe had three inches on Techau and seven inches on Bryce Schulte and Johnson, but the Saints played him tough and did not give an inch.
"We made Phyfe earn every one that he got," said Luehrsmann. "Those are hard-fought points. He's probably the best player in the state for a reason. And we just feel fortunate to eek out a win.
"I think UNI really got a steal," said Luehrsmann. "He's a legacy recruit."
Mims hit the biggest shot of the game when he drilled his 3-pointer to give Xavier a 42-41 lead in overtime with 2:48 remaining.
"He's the best true point guard in the state for a reason in 3A, and actually maybe in all the classes," said Luehrsmann. "He's a special player, he's unselfish, he just wants success for the team.
"When times are called upon to step up and make winning plays, this kid isn't afraid of it."
In addition to his 21 points, Mims held Waverly-Shell Rock guard John Stensland to just three points on 1-for-9 shooting. Stensland began the game with a 13-point average, second-best on the club.
Joens hit one free throw to give Xavier a 43-41 lead with 70 seconds left in overtime. Nolan Butkowski made it 44-41 with another foul shot with 35 seconds left and Bryce Schulte made it 45-41 with another free throw with just 10 seconds remaining to make it a two-possession game.
Phyfe missed a 3-pointer and Joens grabbed the rebound. Joens got fouled and hit both free throws to secure the victory at 47-41.
Waverly-Shell Rock missed four straight shots and committed two turnovers in overtime after Xavier had taken the lead. All told, the Saints held the Go-Hawks without a single point for the last 3:47 of overtime.
Neither team could buy a bucket in the first half, which ended with the Go-Hawks holding a 16-14 lead. The game heated up a little in the second half, but not a whole lot.
The Saints committed nine turnovers in the first half, but committed only more turnover in the second half and overtime.
Joens finished with 14 points for Xavier. Butkowski scored eight points and snared 10 rebounds. Techau scored only one point, but grabbed six rebounds before fouling out.
Quinn Schulte made two free throws to give the Saints a 38-36 lead with 90 seconds left in regulation. Bryce Schulte played 21 minutes and grabbed four rebounds. Johnson played five minutes and got two boards.
The Saints defeated Dubuque Wahlert in the 3A finals last year. Now they'll take a shot at Sergeant Bluff-Luton, which topped second-ranked West Delaware, 72-59, in the other Class 3A semifinal Thursday night.
Xavier finished third at the state tournament in 2015 before winning the title last year. Now the Saints are headed for the state finals again.
"It's been a lot of hard work," said Luehrsmann, in his fifth year as head coach. "We changed the culture when we took the job. It became about accountability and working year-round.
"And to their credit, they hold each other accountable, they do the work in the off-season and they believe in one another. They trust one another, they trust their coaches," he said.
"I couldn't be more pleased with how they bought into the vision that myself and the coaching staff had for this program."
XAVIER (47): Mims 7 6-8 21, Butkowski 2 4-6 8, Joens 4 5-6 14, Q.Schulte 0 2-2 2, Techau 0 1-2 1, Lux 0 0-0 0, Johnson 0 0-0 0, B.Schulte 0 1-4 1. Totals 13 19-28 47.
WAVERLY-SHELL ROCK (41): Stensland 1 1-2 3, Little 1 1-1 3, Velky 2 0-0 4, Bahe 0 1-2 1, Phyfe 8 4-6 22, Holmquist 0 0-0 0, Seward 1 0-0 2, McNally 0 0-0 0, Downing 0 0-0 0, Newsom 2 2-2 6. Totals 15 9-13 41.
Halftime - Waverly-Shell Rock 16, Xavier 14. Regulation - Xavier 38, Waverly-Shell Rock 38. 3-point goals - Xavier 2 (Mims 1, Joens 1), Waverly-Shell Rock 2 (Phyfe 2).
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