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Sabers move one step closer after regional title victory

Feb. 24—CATLIN — A regional plaque had eluded St. Thomas More boys' basketball for a decade entering Friday night.

The Sabers viewed their Class 1A regional final against Salt Fork as a matter of getting revenge, in some respect.

Nineteen points from Peace Bumba and a stout defensive showing helped the top-seeded Sabers claim a 52-41 win over the host and third-seeded Storm and capture their first regional championship since 2014.

"It feels great," STM coach Brandon Martin said. "The kids played hard for 32 minutes. They played a complete game. Give Salt Fork credit, they are coached extremely well. I felt like our guys played really hard."

STM (22-11) was within reach of snapping the drought on Feb. 24, 2023, when Salt Fork claimed a commanding 56-42 victory in Armstrong. But before a healthy crowd in the Storm's home gymnasium, the Sabers nullified the Storm's advantage early on.

Salt Fork's Hayden Chew scored the first basket of the game after the Storm (19-11) won the tip-off, but his layup was countered with a 5-0 STM run that included a high-low find to Owen Yeager and a left wing three-pointer from Bumba. It was a sign of things to come for Bumba, an Indiana State football signee.

"We've been here the last three years and to be able to not get the job done the last two years, we definitely had a chip on our shoulder," Bumba said. "We definitely came in here with a lot of intensity. We knew we had to get the job done, and I'm just really excited we got it done (Friday night)."

Bumba added another three during the quarter in the middle of a 10-0 run that swelled the Sabers' lead to 17-9 by the end of the quarter. The stretch was sparked with 3:55 remaining in the quarter by Cole Kemper's back-to-back contribution of a layup and a three-pointer.

"I'm not really that big of a shooter," Bumba said. "I prayed before this game. I asked God to give me the abilities that I know I have and it definitely showed in the first quarter hitting those two threes."

It took just under 30 minutes for the first half to play out, a torrid pace that was helped by a mere eight whistles for fouls.

That pace didn't translate to scoring, however, once the second quarter began. Chew and Yeager had the only two field goals of the quarter as the Sabers carried an eight-point lead into the locker room at halftime.

"The defense of Peace Bumba and Logan Wade off the bench on (Salt Fork's) best player was superb," Martin said. "I think that's what got us over the hump."

STM's lead grew to 34-23 by the end of the third quarter thanks to six points in the period from Bumba and two free throws from Wilson Kirby, which marked his only points of the contest.

But the Storm surged back, with a putback from Ian Webb, a jumper from Remole and a three-pointer from Webb that ignited the crowd helping the Storm draw within 40-34 with 4:55 to play.

"I just kept telling the guys to be aggressive," Johnson said. "That we had to really push in transition and not hesitate on shots. We did a nice job of coming in and stepping up."

Salt Fork's student section — complete with a young fan that had 'Chewy' and Chew's No. 34 painted on his back — held on over the next five minutes as the Storm resisted fading away.

But time ran out on Salt Fork's bid for its second consecutive regional title as the Sabers reset the clock on their regional drought.

"Just being out here, I tell the younger guys all the time they have to cherish this moment," Bumba said. "I tell them all the time because you never know ... just to be in this environment to play high school basketball is just a blessing."

Yeager complimented Bumba's efforts with 13 points of his own, while Cole Kemper and Andrew Tay added nine points and eight points, respectively.

Remole paced the Storm with 15 points, while Webb added eight points and Church finished with six points on two three-pointers."

"Everybody played their guts out," Johnson said. "All these kids, you can't really put it on an individual and say that one guy did this, one guy did that. It's a team game."

There were plenty of positives down the stretch for the Storm, who won nine of its final 11 games after starting the season 10-9.

"I was kind of questioning the character of our team and I've got to give credit first to the seniors," Johnson said. "I told them in the locker room that they're the ones that turned this ship around because it was sailing to the sea bottom."

The Sabers, however, drove back to Champaign with nets from Salt Fork's baskets in tow.

"Now, we know where we're at with top level competition in our class," Bumba said. "We've been playing a lot of (Class 2A) teams that have a lot of talent and we've been able to stick with a couple of them, but (to know) where we're at with teams in our class, is amazing."