Sabers recovering nicely from slow start

Sabers recovering nicely from slow start

CHAMPAIGN — Ten days after the St. Thomas More volleyball team captured a Class 2A state championship at Redbird Arena in Normal, the Saber girls' basketball group opened its 2017-18 campaign.

Things didn't go terribly well off the bat, with STM posting an 0-5 record in the Morton Thanksgiving Tournament. Senior Hayes Murray and junior NaKaya Hughes, two key statistical threats for coach Tom Garriott's hoops squad, were coming off the emotional high and physical strain of that volleyball season. The Sabers needed a spark.

A 41-21 home victory over Centennial on Nov. 30 provided just that. STM has bounced back to a 9-9 mark that includes a fifth-place finish at the 16-team State Farm Holiday Classic small-school event, an ongoing four-game winning streak and narrow defeats to strong programs in Bloomington Central Catholic, St. Joseph-Ogden and Schlarman.

"I think we're progressing. We're getting better every game," Garriott said this week on an edition of The News-Gazette's "The Locker Room." "Our strength of schedule is very high this season. Our goal was to get better every game, and I think we've reached that so far."

Hughes and senior Emma Blomberg said they felt a change in aura surrounding the Sabers while they were challenging Schlarman, ranked second in state in 1A, before narrowly losing 44-43 to the Hilltoppers on Dec. 28 and defeating three opponents by a combined 15 points in their holiday event.

"I think in the beginning it was a rough start, and we realized that," said Hughes, who averages team highs in points per game (14.0) and field-goal shooting percentage (54.9). "And later on, we were just like, we have to work hard. I think somewhere in the State Farm Classic it really showed us as a team, and now we're just carrying on."

Blomberg said STM's tight-knit locker room has made a major difference for the Sabers, who have collected seven triumphs this season against schools in 3A or 4A.

"Our team motto is "Team Strong," so we really focus on doing everything together as a team," Blomberg said. "And the atmosphere couldn't be better. We're all really close on the court (and) off the court."

Six of STM's final seven games this regular season come against Illini Prairie Conference opponents, offering more tests for the Sabers.

Garriott's crew can run its record to 2-2 in the first-year league today when Chillicothe IVC comes to town — though that's not exactly Garriott's main concern.

"We just have to realize we're not worried about the score, we're not worried about the record or the rating or rankings," he said. "We just want to play the highest-quality teams we can and learn from it."