STM, PBL show off their depth
TOLONO — St. Thomas More and Paxton-Buckley-Loda followed similar paths to success in Tuesday's Class 2A girls' basketball regional tournament at Unity High School.
Neither school had the top scorer in their respective semifinal game, but both teams relied on contributions from multiple players to move into a Thursday championship-game showdown featuring Sangamon Valley Conference schools.
The Sabers — top-ranked in the state in Class 2A — made at least half of their shots in every quarter and had four double-figure scorers while overpowering Tri-Valley 85-43. In the second semifinal, PBL slowed a Unity team that had won eight of its previous nine games and posted a 37-30 triumph.
Jade Brinkoetter scored the first three points for the Sabers (27-2) in each half and STM never trailed while tying its single-season record for wins, which was set last year.
Teammate Randa Harshbarger made her final six shots covering a 25-minute stretch and ended with a team-high 20 points for STM.
She said there was no danger of the team resting on its laurels.
"We come into each game treating it like a state championship game," Harshbarger said. "Our intensity level is high. This is our prime time."
Four Sabers nailed three-pointers — including Brinkoetter and Harshbarger — and 6-foot-4 freshman Tori McCoy had the game's only double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
"She's got the 'freshman' out of her and is playing at the varsity level and killing it," Harshbarger said.
Lexi Wallen scored 17 points and Brinkoetter had 12 for an STM team that hit 13 of 17 free throws.
"They have their mission and the fact that we're all healthy heading into this month, we're excited about what we can do," St. Thomas More coach Chris Mennig said.
At times, he said, he doesn't need to make many adjustments himself.
"It's almost like they have mental telepathy," Mennig said. "They figure where the mismatches are and I don't have to say much."
The Sabers' defense limited Tri-Valley to three first-half baskets and 10.7 percent shooting accuracy from the field in the first 16 minutes.
Ten of St. Thomas More's 12 players scored. Harshbarger wasn't surprised.
"We rely on everyone," Harshbarger said. "If one person goes out, there's plenty more to come in."
PBL scored the first six points against Unity and trailed for less than 30 seconds against the home team in the Rocket Center.
The seven-point margin of victory could be traced to a 5-1 edge in offensive rebound baskets, including the first three baskets the Panthers scored in the second quarter.
"Coach (Clarissa Gross) told us to focus on less turnovers and more rebounds," said PBL's Erin Lemley, who cleared a game-high 11 rebounds.
Tuesday's game continued a pattern for PBL.
"Rebounding is something we've been able to rely on all season," Gross said. "Rebounding has won games for us and is a key component in us winning 20 games."
A three-pointer by Unity's Kennedy Hartman, who hit a game-high 14 points, lifted the Rockets into a 17-16 lead early in the third period.
PBL freshman Kellyn Maynard hit 2 of 2 free throws at the six-minute mark, and the Panthers were ahead to stay.
Unity coach Kelly Gallick pinpointed the obvious difference in the teams.
"They hit the boards well," Gallick said. "We've tried to teach our kids it's one of the easier ways to score. Not many teams rebound anymore."
PBL will be the underdog in Thursday's 7:30 title-game matchup with St. Thomas More. That's OK with Gross.
"I don't think anyone believes in us but us," said Gross, who can point to a recent college game (Indiana's weekend win against Michigan) to show her team what is possible. "Ones (top-rated teams) can go down."
Lemley led PBL with nine points. Kandace Hofer had eight points and seven rebounds. Hartman not only led Unity in scoring, but also with seven rebounds.