Sabers, Spartans make regional title date
CHAMPAIGN — Spirit encompasses more than enthusiasm. There's also the competitive drive to excel.
St. Thomas More's Randa Harshbarger is the illustration to accompany the definition.
How else could the smallest starter on the Sabers' girls' basketball team grab the most rebounds in a semifinal game of a Class 2A regional tournament?
The 5-foot-4 Harshbarger had a double-double (game-high 15 points and team-high 10 rebounds) Thursday as top-seeded St. Thomas More dispatched Paxton-Buckley-Loda 51-35 to move into tonight's championship game against Sangamon Valley Conference rival St. Joseph-Ogden.
"She wanted the ball," Sabers coach Jason Schreder said. "In girls' basketball, it's usually who wants it most. She has the spring in her step and the fire in her now."
Against an opponent they had beaten twice in the regular season, each time by 33 points, the Sabers held a tenuous 35-31 lead with less than 5 1/2 minutes remaining.
"We had to make sure defense fueled our offense," Sabers junior Jade Brinkoetter said.
Harshbarger did just that. Twice in the first half, she swiped the ball from the Panthers and raced downcourt for an uncontested layup.
She helped STM pull away in the final quarter, hitting 2 of 2 free throws at the 5:11 mark and then turning another steal into two points at 4:57 as the team's lead grew to 39-31.
The Sabers hit 11 consecutive fourth-quarter free throws to pull into a double-figure lead for the first time. Lexi Wallen finished with 10 points, and Brinkoetter scored eight.
Schreder said he wasn't overly worried as the final five minutes approached.
"We've been in that position, where we had a close lead and were able to stretch it out," he said. "We have good leadership and kids who don't get rattled."
Cheyenne Weber led PBL (18-10) with nine points. Erin Lemley had a game-high 11 rebounds.
SJ-O 52, Bismarck-Henning 45. Elizabeth Everingham handled the point guard duties and SJ-O teammate Josey Fruhling handled the points as the Spartans avenged an 11-point late-season loss to the Blue Devils.
Everingham directed an offense that handled the B-H pressure and committed only eight turnovers. Fruhling scored half of her team's points, hitting 11 of 19 shots en route to her game-high total of 26.
"E (Everingham) did a good job every single possession," Fruhling said. "We came in confident and knowing what we needed to do."
Knowing wasn't always enough, according to SJ-O coach Brian Hatfield.
"(Lori) Haas and (Samantha) Siddens are so tough," he said, referring to the Blue Devils' scoring leaders. "You can contest shots, and they will get them off. And every one is on the mark."
Haas led the Blue Devils (24-7) with 19 points. Siddens, hounded by Everingham, totaled eight.
"E is the best defender I've seen in the last two years," Hatfield said.
Fruhling took over in the second half, scoring 12 consecutive SJ-O points over a nine-minute stretch that extended into the final 90 seconds. Her rebound basket created a 42-42 tie with 4:06 remaining, and her steal and layup six seconds later lifted the Spartans (24-5) into the lead for good.
"She did a great job," Hatfield said, "but all of our seniors stepped up and we had a big game from everybody."
B-H coach Mike Stephens said there wasn't one key turning point.
"It's hard to say the game turned on one play," Stephens said.
Hannah Graham scored nine points for SJ-O and was one of the sharpshooters during a second-quarter offensive display, when the two teams combined to make 15 of 18 shots from the field while scoring 36 points. Graham was 4 of 4 in the quarter.
Hatfield addressed the issues surrounding an SJ-O coach but didn't dwell on the situation.
"Our focus was to keep our minds on the game," Hatfield said. "We talked as a team, but there's not a lot we can talk about.
"We told them to believe in who they are and be proud of who they are as individuals. We wanted to shine something positive on our school."
Fruhling led the Spartans with eight rebounds, the same number collected by B-H leader Emily Weinard.