STM girls headed to state: 'The stars seem to be aligning'

LITCHFIELD — St. Thomas More has shown it has the best girls’ basketball team in school history.

Next up: prove it has the state’s best Class 2A team.

That challenge will start Friday at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena thanks to the Sabers’ first super-sectional victory Monday. St. Thomas More continued its postseason romp, dispatching Litchfield 75-36 at Illinois-Springfield.

“This is a special group,” Sabers coach Chris Mennig said. “It’s about making memories, and we hope the storybook is not done yet.”

The Sabers (31-2) showed just how special against an opponent that had won 17 of its previous 19 games. For the third time in less than a month, a St. Thomas More athlete reached the 1,000-point mark for a career.

In January, senior Jade Brinkoetter and junior Randa Harshbarger achieved that milestone. Against Litchfield, it was sophomore Lexi Wallen’s turn.

The last of her game-high 19 points put her at the mark. It came on a three-point play with 4 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.

Mennig called a timeout and removed Wallen, who received an ovation from many of the 532 spectators in attendance.

He didn’t let her know exactly how close she was prior to the game.

“I told her she had a ways to go and that should not be the focus,” Mennig said.

For the first time in five postseason games, the state’s top-rated 2A team fell behind in the first quarter. Litchfield took a 4-2 lead, which lasted 51 seconds until Wallen nailed 2 of 2 free throws with 6:08 left in the opening quarter.

Harshbarger’s two free throws at the 4:51 mark sent the Sabers ahead to stay.

The Sabers were undaunted when they fell behind.

“We know we will get (the) other team’s best punch,” Wallen said. “We just have to break them down with our style of play.”

A year ago, the Sabers were the ones exiting the super-sectional after a one-sided loss. That memory stayed with the returnees.

“You don’t get many second chances,” Brinkoetter said. “We knew what we were coming up against. We wanted to redeem ourselves.”

St. Thomas More did so with a balanced scoring attack. Every starter scored at least nine points. Freshman Tori McCoy recorded a double-double before the third period ended and finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds. It was her school-record 18th double-double, one more than previous record-holder Gina Hinders.

“We’re just starting to see the beginning of what her career can be,” Mennig said.

Wallen, who scored 13 second-half points and was 2 for 2 on three-pointers, said the team’s mind-set entering the super-sectional was entirely different than in 2012.

“Last year, we were more excited to get there,” she said. “This year, to make it to state, I’m speechless.”

Harshbarger and Erica Wallen each scored 11 points for the Sabers and teamed up to collect 15 rebounds. Brinkoetter added nine.

St. Thomas More is in the state’s Final Four. It’s a position Mennig set as a goal when he took over the program seven years ago.

“We said we wanted to be good enough to get to Redbird (Arena),” Mennig said. “This group has talented underclassmen but also a strong cornerstone of upperclassmen. We talk about being unselfish. When you are, everyone reaps the rewards. The stars seem to be aligning this year.”

The 6-foot-4 McCoy isn’t a shoot-first player. Twice in the second quarter she received the ball inside and dished off to teammates cutting to the basket on the opposite side.

The Sabers will play the late semifinal game (8:15 p.m.) on Friday against a 31-1 El Paso-Gridley team that has won 17 games in a row. EP-G was ranked fifth in the final state poll and has two 1,000-point scorers in juniors Rebekah Ehresman and Codee Schlipf.

Brinkoetter enjoyed the moment because she knows it will be all business when she returns to practice today.

“I’m on top of the world,” she said. “We were on top of our game today with our shooting. We played our game, pushed the ball and they couldn’t keep up.”

The rebounding was even after one quarter (7-7) but the Sabers dominated thereafter, finishing with a 38-21 edge on the boards,
Mennig wasn’t surprised his team came out and hit 7 of 11 third-quarter shots.

“We believe the third quarter is one of our best quarters,” he said.

The team is now guaranteed of playing two more third quarters.

Collision course

We asked Fred Kroner for his thoughts on Class 2A state:

“Top-ranked St. Thomas More moves into the Class 2A state semifinals with three other schools, two of which were ranked among the top six in the final Associated Press state poll. Next up for the Sabers is a fifth-ranked El Paso-Gridley team that presents a tall challenge. In the opposite bracket are unranked Walther Lutheran and No. 4 Nashville, which has 13 straight 20-win seasons in basketball and won last spring’s 2A softball state title. Southern Illinois University softball recruit Shaye Harre leads the Hornettes in scoring (12.8) and sophomore sister Jordi has nailed 50 three-pointers. Like St. Thomas More, Nashville hasn’t lost to a Class 2A opponent this season.”

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