CLIFTON — The expectation is a blowout. Every game. Every quarter.
That’s the standard St. Thomas More has created this girls’ basketball season.
The numbers back it up. The Sabers had outscored their first three postseason foes 127-49 by the time the third quarter arrived before the Class 2A Clifton Central Sectional championship game.
Thursday night, however, presented different numbers.
Watseka had the Sabers’ faithful on edge after a three-pointer by Warrior standout Devin Curry trimmed St. Thomas More’s lead to 15-12 with 5 minutes, 16 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Sabers closed the first half on a 7-3 run to take a 22-15 lead into halftime before the state’s top-ranked 2A team asserted itself and posted a 54-31 victory.
“We knew all along that we could play with them,” Watseka coach Rebecca Swigert said. “I’m not sure how many other people thought that, but you have to have patience and poise. We did that, and we played a good half. The first half was an example of how you have to beat a team like St. Thomas More.”
Freshman Tori McCoy showed why it’s difficult for teams to beat the Sabers with her play in the third quarter. The 6-foot-4 center, who has garnered interest from multiple Division I schools, scored 11 straight points to increase the lead from 28-19 with 6:27 left to 39-19 with just under two minutes left.
McCoy led all scorers with 24 points and 13 rebounds, her 17th double-double of the season to tie the single-season record at St. Thomas More.
“She helped us out so much,” St. Thomas More guard Randa Harshbarger said. “We don’t 100 percent rely on her, but she always helps. It’s nice to see that her freshman nerves aren’t in her anymore and that she’s willing to step up.”
The sectional championship is the second straight for the Sabers, who advance to play Litchfield at 7:30 p.m. Monday in a super-sectional game at Illinois-Springfield. They are one win away from playing in the state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal for the first time in school history .
Unlike last year, they are now cast in the role of favorite going into every game.
“We tried to prepare for this game like it was the state championship,” said Harshbarger, who contributed 10 points, nine rebounds and four steals. “We know what our highest is, and we have a goal set, so that every game we’re trying to reach our goal.”
Curry led the Warriors (26-7) with 20 points, but foul trouble plagued her in the third quarter when St. Thomas More — which also received six points and seven rebounds (six offensive) from sophomore Lexi Wallen and six points from senior Jade Brinkoetter — made its game-changing run.
“We’ve got everything to lose,” St. Thomas More coach Chris Mennig said. “We’ve been in (Watseka’s) position as a program on many occasions. A lot of people told me, ‘Oh, it’s going to be an easy game,’ but I knew on my drive up that it would be a battle. Watseka gave us everything and then some. That’s a credit to them.”
The Sabers (30-2) never trailed against Watseka for its third win of the season against the Warriors. But Curry and the rest of the Warriors made sure the Sabers knew it was in a game — at least for a half.
“I think that was the first time our team had seen that type of adversity,” Mennig said. “Wateska capitalized on that, no doubt about it. It’s a journey and a fun ride. This is one of the first years where I have a team looking at me, telling me their goal is to go to state. This group is pretty focused, but we’ll let them enjoy this for at least 24 hours.”