ST. JOSEPH — Who would end the drought?
The St. Joseph-Ogden girls’ basketball team needed someone — anyone — to hit a shot other than a free throw during the third quarter of Thursday night’s Class 2A regional championship game versus Villa Grove/Heritage.
More than six minutes had elapsed in that period, and the Spartans were on the wrong end of a 9-3 run while their basket appeared closed to anything other than a one-point play.
So, again, who would end the drought?
Maybe senior Hannah Dukeman or junior Payton Vallee, the two returning starters from last season’s SJ-O team that placed third in state.
Perhaps sophomore Ella Armstrong, who paced SJ-O in scoring during Tuesday night’s 34-32 regional semifinal victory. Or senior Katie Cramer, who racked up 12 first-half points on Thursday.
Or sophomore reserve Abby Behrens.
The 5-foot-4 guard nailed a corner three-pointer and assisted on another field goal before the third quarter ended. She ultimately scored all nine of her points after intermission to help the second-seeded Spartans outlast the third-seeded Blue Devils 50-34 and advance to the sectional round for the third consecutive season.
“The team last year went to state, and the team before that ... made it to (the sectional final),” Behrens said, “so it means a lot to carry it on and just keep the name of St. Joe good.”
SJ-O coach Kevin Taylor reminded his athletes who didn’t receive much floor time in Tuesday’s win Tuscola that they could be called upon in Thursday’s final between the Spartans (21-10) and Blue Devils (25-6).
Behrens turned out to be at the front of that line.
“I told the girls ... ‘You might be the one that gets to step up and have the chance,’” Taylor said. “And she did that. I hope she enjoyed the moment, because she was big for us.”
Behrens continued her offensive run in the last eight minutes with four free throws and a running, floating conversion that seemed to surprise Behrens most of all.
“I did not think that was going in,” Behrens said with a smile. “It was kind of an accident.”
Surprised also described VG/H coach Dan Sappenfield, as it pertained to Behrens’ late-game exploits.
“I don’t know who number 14 is (but) we had nothing on our scouting report about her,” Sappenfield said, “and she comes in and has a monster late third and early fourth quarter. Killed us.”
Behrens served as one piece of a balanced SJ-O scoring attack, with Cramer (12 points), Vallee (nine points) and sophomore Payton Jacob (eight points) all in the same neighborhood.
“It’s awesome ... to know that we came out on our home court and were able to pull off another win,” Vallee said. “Especially in regionals, it’s a special feeling.”
Vallee and sophomore Taylor Wells, who stand 5-10 and 6-1, respectively, also offered a steady boxing-out presence all night long. It showed in the final rebounding ledger, favoring the Spartans 30-12.
“We had to get the rebounds, control the boards (Thursday), and we did,” Taylor said. “We told ... certain ones (to) really crash the boards well, and those girls listened.”
The Blue Devils, who dropped a 46-43 decision to the Spartans on Nov. 21, rarely relented defensively until SJ-O began pulling away in the fourth quarter. VG/H forced 19 turnovers but couldn’t turn those into points often enough.
Junior Kyleigh Block’s 14 points and senior Aliya Holloman’s nine points topped the Blue Devils’ scoring chart. A significant barrier, however, happened when Holloman, senior Jordyn Ray (two points) and junior Samantha Campbell (six points) all missed the front end of separate 1-and-1 free throw chances early in the fourth stanza.
The Spartans responded with Behrens’ surprise shot and a Jacob triple, boosting their lead to 12 points with about four minutes remaining.
“They’re just a good team,” Sappenfield said of SJ-O. “You go to the state tournament, those kids — not all of them are there — but you do that, there’s going to be an experience that knows how to get through (playoff) situations.”
The Spartans’ next postseason situation will take place in Monday’s 7 p.m. semifinal of the 2A Paris Sectional, against either No. 1 seed Paris (32-0) or No. 4 seed Sullivan (22-6). Those two teams are slated to meet at 7 p.m. on Friday for a regional championship in Sullivan.
“It’s exciting to keep playing,” Vallee said. “I’m excited to see what this team can do, and it’s definitely exciting after how far we went last year to see if we can do it again.”