NORMAL — The folding chairs were aligned in rows. Three of them. Four players per row.
St. Thomas More’s girls’ basketball team listened intently to coach Chris Mennig on Friday night before making their state tournament debut at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena.
He left the players with a parting locker-room message.
“There’s a 15-minute warmup,” Mennig said. “The first five minutes, I want you to look around. Look for your family. Look for your friends.
“Soak it all up. Take basketball and put it out of your mind. Think of the journey and where you are. The first five minutes, I want you to be kids, but at the 10-minute mark, flip the switch. Get your game-face on and go at it.”
The Sabers not only listened, they followed instructions.
St. Thomas More is one day and one game away from its one goal: to be No. 1.
The state’s top-ranked Class 2A girls’ basketball team dispatched Heart of Illinois Conference champion El Paso-Gridley 62-48 in a Friday night state semifinal game.
The Sabers (32-2) scored six points in the first minute, starting with a shot from the lane by freshman Tori McCoy and following with Jade Brinkoetter’s conversion after a turnover on El Paso-Gridley’s first possession.
They never trailed while extending their winning streak to 13 games ahead of tonight’s 8:15 championship-game showdown with fourth-ranked Nashville.
From the start of the season, the team’s stated goal was a state title. The players willingly put it out for public consumption and conversation.
“If you can’t talk about a championship, you can’t win it,” senior Jade Brinkoetter said. “We were willing to go after it. We’ve had our eyes on the prize the entire year.”
Freshman McCoy and sophomore Lexi Wallen combined to score 44 of the Sabers’ points, led by McCoy’s game-high 24.
Wallen said the team avoided the pitfalls that capture many first-time teams at state: nerves.
“Once the game gets going, we forget where we are and focus on the game, instead of the surroundings,” said Wallen, who hit two of the Sabers’ three three-pointers.
Mennig’s pregame talk focused on matchups and keys to the game. There wasn’t a fiery oratory to light a spark in his players. He intentionally tried not to provide information overload.
“The more you put in their heads, the slower the legs get,” Mennig said. “It has to be instinctual.”
The point is to have the players ready to perform and react, not thinking about their next move.
St. Thomas More made its move at the tip, which McCoy controlled.
The team hit its stride in the second quarter, holding the Titans scoreless the final 7:07 while building a 19-point lead at intermission.
“Don’t you dare let up for one minute,” Mennig said. “Come out and finish this the right way.”
At one point in his halftime delivery — shortly after imploring “follow me very carefully here,” — Mennig paused and asked, “Having fun?”
Upon hearing a positive response, he added, “I wanted to make sure I’m not the only one.”
St. Thomas More’s defense was the difference. The Sabers held El Paso-Gridley scoreless for 12 minutes, 8 seconds, a stretch which ended with 2:57 left in the third quarter when STM had built a 30-point lead (46-16).
“Our kids’ defensive energy surprised even me a little bit, especially in the second quarter,” Mennig said.
El Paso-Gridley scored 14 first-quarter points but managed only 12 more in the middle two periods.
“Not many teams downstate will push the ball after a score (by the opponents),” Mennig said. “For most kids, it’s walk up. For us, it’s more of a college style. If we can get the flow going, for a lot of kids, it will wear on them.”
Defense was not Mennig’s main emphasis in the pregame.
“Defense wins games, but rebounding wins championships,” he said.
The team’s unheralded rebounder was Erica Wallen, the second STM senior starter. She hauled down eight boards, five in the second half.
The Sabers held a 35-26 edge on the boards, led by McCoy with 14 rebounds. Despite McCoy’s 6-4 frame, Mennig doesn’t envision her as a post player.
“Our development of her will be as a perimeter player over time,” he said. “What we saw now is just raw instincts. We’re just scratching the surface.”
Mennig saw enough of the Nashville game to form impressions of his team’s final opponent of the season.
“It will be two very opposite styles,” he said. “We’ll see which one prevails. They are a battle-tested crew.”
Though STM likes to run and score in transition, Mennig added, “our focus (at practice) has been in halfcourt execution, knowing it would eventually come to a slugfest. I think we are prepared.”
Brinkoetter was ready to go Friday night.
“I don’t want to wait another day to play again,” she said.
“I’m excited and ready, too,” added Randa Harshbarger, who scored nine points.