Something to crowe about: SJ-O upends STM

Something to crowe about: SJ-O upends STM

CHAMPAIGN — Peyton Crowe wore an ear-to-ear smile following Thursday night's Class 2A St. Thomas More girls' basketball regional title game. Around her neck was the netting from one of the baskets, and written in black marker on one of her white Nike sneakers were the letters "GH" and a small heart.

The St. Joseph-Ogden junior made her statement on the court at a critical juncture — in more ways than one.

Crowe piled in 22 points on the back of two three-pointers and 8-of-9 free-throw shooting as the top-seeded Spartans captured their fourth regional championship in six seasons by dispatching the fourth-seeded host Sabers 55-47.

"It's great. It feels so good," Crowe said as an SJ-O supporter offered a congratulatory fist bump. "Honestly, I'm speechless. ... Not many people get to experience it, so I'm really embracing it, for sure."

On the birthday of late great-grandfather Herb Frerichs — "GH" stood for Grandpa Herb — competing for postseason hardware and defending a No. 1 seed, Crowe had plenty of motivational ammo. Much of it turned into made baskets as the Spartans (20-8) overcame an early 7-0 deficit and ended STM's win streak at 11. Crowe was silent in the opening quarter, but went off for 12 of SJ-O's 15 second-period points. She hit a trey while falling to the floor in the third frame, and Crowe concluded the evening by making five free throws in the last eight minutes.

"I was playing all for (Frerichs) and all for our team," Crowe said. "I just wanted to get that dub (Thursday)."

Junior Bree Trimble added 16 points for the Spartans. One game after tallying her 1,000th career point, Trimble's most important contribution in this title bout may have come with less than a minute to play. Crowe missed from the charity stripe and Trimble hauled in the rebound, sunk a layup and earned a foul shot in the process. That three-point swing pushed SJ-O ahead for good at 52-44.

"That was a big play," Spartans coach Kevin Taylor said. "I was over here yelling, 'Pull it out.' But the ball bounced her way on that play. That definitely was huge for us."

In his first season helming the SJ-O program, Taylor has squeezed a great deal of success out of a relatively young roster. The Spartans boast just four seniors, and four of the five girls who tallied at least two points Thursday will still be part of the program in 2018-19.

"I've known these girls for a long while. I think they can be a special group," said Taylor, an SJ-O alumnus who served as a team assistant last season. "They've got a lot of talent, a lot of heart."

After their quick offensive start, which led to 16 first-quarter points, the Sabers (17-10) were done in by a combination of missed shots and foul trouble. Junior NaKaya Hughes posted a team-best 17 points despite playing roughly 12 minutes, according to STM coach Tom Garriott. The 6-foot Saber fouled out with 4:57 to play and the Spartans ahead 44-42.

Hughes' post presence proved difficult for SJ-O to contain, and outside senior Kaia Bowen (16 points), STM could get little offensive momentum when Hughes was on the sideline.

"Every time we made a run, they'd call Hughey for another foul, so I'd have to pull her out," Garriott said. "That was the game right there, Hughes in foul trouble. That was it."

A hot-shooting group of Sabers, which included three senior starters, struggled to convert in two postseason affairs. While Garriott credited SJ-O's effort, deeming it a potential Final Four team in the process, he was left confounded as to why his team's scoring dried up at the worst possible time.

"Their defense was good, but we practice shooting," Garriott said. "Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't. We're confident. We're shooters."

The Spartans have a few days to ready themselves for Monday's 6 p.m. sectional semifinal against third-seeded Peotone (23-7) in Gilman. That won't include much time for celebration — just Thursday night, Taylor said. But that seems fine by Crowe and pals, as they have bigger goals in mind.

"One more game isn't going to be enough," she said. "We're just going to survive and advance."