SJ-O, STM girls set to meet for regional crown

SJ-O, STM girls set to meet for regional crown

CHAMPAIGN — It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be.

St. Thomas More girls’ basketball struggled Tuesday in its postseason opener against Heyworth. Even while playing on their home court in the Class 2A St. Thomas More Regional semifinals, the Sabers delivered what coach Tom Garriott deemed their worst performance of the season.

But when the final buzzer sounded, it didn’t matter. And the result left STM a win away from its fifth regional crown in six seasons.

Junior NaKaya Hughes deposited 13 points, serving as both the fourth-seeded Sabers’ leading scorer and primary paint presence in a 45-35 victory over the scrappy, fifth-seeded Hornets. The triumph was STM’s 12th in a row.

“In the beginning, our energy was sort of low, our defense wasn’t the best,” Hughes said. “And toward the end, we’re just like, ‘We need to pick up the energy,’ and then our defense would come together. In our huddle, we always say, ‘D comes to O,’ which means defense leads to offense. So our offense will fall in with our defense.”

The Sabers (17-9) accomplished half of that in the first 16 minutes, locking up Heyworth (21-7) with a three-quarter-court press and active hands in the lanes. This generated 15 Hornet turnovers in the first two quarters, including 11 in the opening stanza.

“We just didn’t handle the pressure that we typically would handle very well,” Heyworth coach Tony Griffin said. “They’re aggressive, and I thought we lost our composure. They sped us up, as most teams do, and they pressed us up a little bit, and we just turned it over more than we traditionally turn it over.”

But on the other side, STM struggled to sink buckets. Though the Hornets had their possession woes, they made their looks count more than those of the Sabers in the early stages, creating a slim 25-23 Hornets’ halftime edge.

When the squads hit the locker room, four points from senior Brianna Hopper was the only tangible complement to Hughes’ nine-point output.

“We shot bad. We got out of our system,” Garriott said. “You’ve got to hand it to Heyworth — they played hard, they played well. We just couldn’t make a shot. It just kind of threw us all out of sync.”

Hurting the Sabers was seven fouls against in the first eight minutes, along with a 17-11 disadvantage in rebounding. On top of that, STM was dealing with a bevy of non-playing problems, such as the flu for senior Kaia Bowen, a shoulder issue for senior Emma Blomberg and a number of sprained ankles across the roster.

“When we know it’s going to be a game like that, one of our teammates is like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this,’” Hughes said. “We know what type of game this is. (We have to) just contain ourselves and play through it.”

And things did get better for the host unit. The Sabers continued turning over the Hornets and started hauling down more boards. Shots also started swishing, as Blomberg and fellow senior Hayes Murray each piled up eight points, including one three-pointer apiece in the second half.

That left STM not only with plenty to improve on, in its coach’s eyes, but also a rematch with Illini Prairie Conference enemy St. Joseph-Ogden in Thursday’s title game. The Spartans captured the regular-season bout 62-57 in St. Joseph, not long before the Sabers began their ongoing win streak.

Though both Garriott and Hughes expressed a belief the game would be highly competitive, they have different visuals of a setup that will send one IPC team to the sectional round and the other home for the season.

“Sometimes I think some of the coaches should take a class on how you seed teams,” Garriott said. “I really don’t want to play (SJ-O coach) Kevin (Taylor), and Kevin really doesn’t want to play us. We both know how good each other’s teams are, and he’s got a well-coached team, a good group. So it should be a good one.”

“We’re all very excited,” Hughes added. “And, of course, our boys don’t play that day, so we’re going to have a really big crowd. Everybody’s ready for it, and we’re all excited.”

Spartans ease past Bombers. St. Joseph-Ogden girls’ basketball has one piece of postseason hardware in Bree Trimble’s career — a regional championship in 2016 when she was a freshman. Thanks to Trimble’s standout performance in a regional semifinal against Argenta-Oreana on Tuesday night, the Spartans are a single victory away from duplicating that feat.

Oh, and the junior reached a career milestone as well.

Among Trimble’s 19 points was the 1,000th of her high school run, pushing top-seeded SJ-O to a 50-25 win versus ninth-seeded A-O.

“My grandpa was telling me how about how I was getting close, and I really wasn’t worried about it,” said Trimble, whose brother, Brandon, secured 2,115 points before graduating in 2017 from SJ-O. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to go play my game, and if I get there then I get there.’ But I wasn’t focused on scoring however many points to get there. I was just focused on the game. I wanted to win.”

Mission complete, as the Spartans (19-8) controlled from the opening tip against a group of Bombers (11-18) who couldn’t handle SJ-O’s speed or aggression.

The Spartans controlled the boards by a 32-22 margin for the evening and elicited 25 turnovers from A-O.

“It is good to get one game in and move on,” Taylor said. “I thought we played hard (Tuesday), but I don’t think we played necessarily as efficient or as clean a game as we like to play. We get to move on. That’s the main thing.”

Junior Peyton Crowe added 13 points for SJ-O. The Trimble-Crowe duo, known for its ability to hit from beyond the arc, was slicing and dicing in the paint all night. The pair combined for 18 free-throw attempts without even participating in the fourth period.

“They might’ve been listening to the coach, because I was wanting them to attack,” Taylor said. “Early we were settling for too many quick jumpers, and I wanted them and everybody to attack the basket a little bit.”

Keying A-O was sophomore Gabrielle Williams, who started the season on junior varsity and finished with 10 points. Her 5-foot-10 frame was the only counter to SJ-O’s defensive intensity, but it didn’t prove enough.

Though the Spartans had to wait to learn their regional title game foe, Trimble posited a matchup with STM would prove a stout one.

“We’re just going to look for key players,” she said. “We watched them play a little bit (Monday). They’re a tough team. I think it (would) be a good game.”