Sabers making return trip to state
DECATUR — St. Thomas More is in its stretch run, and the Sabers are on quite a run.
The state’s top-ranked girls’ basketball team accomplished Monday what it has done throughout the postseason: win by a double-digit margin.
In the Class 2A super-sectional at Millikin University’s Griswold Center, four starters scored in double figures and the other had six assists as the Sabers (31-2) overpowered Riverton 74-35.
St. Thomas More will play in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. state semifinal game in Normal without any of its five tournament contests to date being decided by fewer than 24 points.
“When the lights come on, the stars are to shine,” STM coach Chris Mennig said. “This is a mature team, and everyone understands their role.”
STM forced eight first-quarter turnovers and led 17-3 entering the second quarter. Riverton’s 20-point scorer, senior Carlie Cuffle, was held to four points by Liz Bristow and colleagues.
“We were in a frenzy most of the game,” Riverton coach Devyn Flanagan said. “The press got us flustered. It was our biggest game, in front of the biggest crowd, and we were in a panic. The more we turned it over, the more we panicked.”
Riverton, which didn’t substitute the first 13 minutes, outscored STM 10-9 during the second quarter.
“We took too many threes (going 0 for 7),” Mennig said.
“There was some nerves and anxiety,” Randa Harshbarger said.
Tori McCoy, who picked up two fouls in the first 51/2 minutes, was limited to 18 minutes but had a double-double with game-high totals of 23 points and 10 rebounds. McCoy blocked three shots and, Flanagan said, the 6-foot-4 sophomore is a difficult player to prepare for.
“It’s hard to simulate her length and athleticism in practice,” Flanagan said. “Her wing span is enormous.”
Mennig has made a point of telling McCoy about the importance of staying on the court.
“Her being on the floor changes the game,” he said. “You can see her enthusiasm, but sometimes she is too thirsty.”
Twice after grabbing defensive rebounds, McCoy went coast-to-coast for layups.
Harshbarger just missed a double-double. She scored 14 points and had a game-high nine steals. She said the experience of playing for a state championship a year ago will be valuable as the team prepares for a return trip to Illinois State University.
“We know the environment and what our mentality needs to be,” Harshbarger said. “We’re one step closer.”
Lexi Wallen scored 13 points, and Bristow added 12. Courtney Wax had a game-high six assists.
“When you put together their athleticism, bench and height, they will be a tough team to beat,” Flanagan said. “He’s blessed with a deep bench.”
STM expanded its lead to 37 points in the third quarter and led by as much as 41 in the final period. With two games remaining in the season, Bristow said it was important not to take a step backward as far as momentum.
“We’re coming back (to state) with a chip on our shoulder (after placing second in 2013),” she said. “We want to show what we can do and prove to people we can win. (Monday night), we came together as a team.”
The team’s outside shooting picked up in the fourth quarter. Four different Sabers nailed three-pointers, starting with Harshbarger, Wallen and Wax in the first two minutes. Lauren Croft hit the team’s other trey.
Among the 612 spectators at Millikin was UI coach Matt Bollant and LSU coach Tony Perotti.
The Sabers’ first-round state opponent is five-time champion Teutopolis, which will try to knock off another state power in five days. T-Town topped No. 2 Breese Central 49-44 in a Monday super-sectional at Salem.
“We’ve gotten ourselves back,” Mennig said. “Now we’re playing with house money.”
Girls’ 2A state pairings
At Illinois State University
6:30 p.m. — St. Thomas More vs. Teutopolis
8:15 p.m. — Prophetstown vs. Elmhurst Immaculate Conception
6:30 p.m. — Third place
8:15 p.m. — Championship