BLOOMINGTON — When the mystery guest on the St. Thomas More bench could no longer be ignored, and when no one claimed responsibility, coach Chris Mennig took ownership.
As he made his way to the locker room Saturday following his team’s 72-62 girls’ basketball win at Bloomington Central Catholic, he carried two packages of orange Kool-Aid.
The symbolism was obvious. When Mennig’s third-ranked (Class 2A) team beat BCC in the finals of the State Farm Classic, he declared he needed more convincing before anointing his team as one destined for greatness.
He wasn’t ready to sip the Kool-Aid, he claimed at the time, but added that a win against the Saints on their own home court might change his mind.
Now, his feelings are clear.
“I took a big gulp,” Mennig said.
He’s not bashful about discussing his squad’s potential.
“This team has as good of a chance as any I’ve seen in our area,” Mennig said. “If we’re not No. 1 (ranked) ... they’ve earned it.
“The bull’s-eye on our back just got bigger. Now, it’s on us. Can we go wire to wire?”
St. Thomas More went the distance against the Saints, tying the school record for consecutive wins with its 14th in succession. The Sabers held on during a first half where there were seven lead changes and built a 12-point cushion in the final quarter thanks to their free throw proficiency.
Entering the final minute of the game, STM had made 20 of 22 free throws. BCC finished 10 for 21 from the line.
“This group is the most balanced team we’ve ever had,” Mennig said. “Our challenge will be ourselves.
“We have to stay humble and stay hungry.”
Lexi Wallen — who made her first 10 free throws — scored a team-high 18 points. Randa Harshbarger had 17 and Jade Brinkoetter added 15. Freshman Tori McCoy — in her 13th varsity game — produced her ninth double-double.
The 6-foot-4 McCoy had 12 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.
“We haven’t come close to seeing what that young lady can do,” Mennig said. “A lot of it is raw instincts.
“We haven’t had an offseason together. She had great development at a younger age.”
Nine of McCoy’s rebounds were on the offensive end.
Harshbarger scored the game’s first points, seven seconds into the contest, and broke the final tie (33-33) on a three-pointer with 4:46 left in the third period. Three of her other baskets were on drives where she nailed a 10-footer while on the move.
“She is one of the biggest gym rats I’ve ever seen,” Mennig said. “Those runners we’ve worked on since she first came through the door. They’re a credit to her love of the game.”
The other STM starter, Erica Wallen, cleared nine rebounds as the Sabers cleaned up on the glass, 46-28.
Mennig’s 17-1 team has played nine Class 3A opponents and next Saturday will host the state’s top-ranked 4A team, Chicago Whitney Young.
“It’s an opportunity for greatness,” Mennig said. “You have to put yourselves out there to give yourselves a chance.”
Trailing 29-27 at halftime, STM used every second of the break, returning in time to inbound the ball for the third quarter. A 26-point quarter followed, including back-to-back three-pointers by Elayna Kramer in the final 90 seconds as St. Thomas More expanded a 44-42 lead to 50-42.
BCC (13-3) never pulled closer than six points thereafter.
“Our bench — and super sub Kramer — not only helped us maintain the lead but also to increase it,” Mennig said. “Kramer feels no fear.”
Brinkoetter was most impressed by how her team kept its composure.
“We stayed calm, handled the ball and didn’t back down,” the senior said. “For us, BCC has always been the team to beat.
“A lot of people thought the first one was a fluke. To come to their place, it feels good to hand it to them. To beat them by 10 feels even better. This was like a 2A sectional championship game, and it shows the heart we have.”