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Sabers' season ends in sectional semifinal

Feb. 28—DANVILLE — St. Thomas More boys' basketball had already checked a box that hadn't been filled in a decade.

But on the heels of its first regional championship plaque since 2014, its pursuit of an elusive trip to the IHSA state finals ended on Tuesday night with a 52-38 setback against Lexington in a Class 1A sectional semifinal game at Mary Miller Gym.

"They're well-coached. They're a solid team," St. Thomas More coach Brandon Martin said. "Their experience pays in these games. They don't have those jitters, I felt like early in the game we were a lot more uncomfortable than what they were."

STM (22-12) entered Tuesday's game riding a wave of success in Vermilion County. The Sabers were four days and about 10 miles removed from a convincing 52-41 win against Salt Fork in a regional championship game contested in Catlin.

An answer for Lexington's Griffin Hari, however, proved more challenging to come up with.

The senior guard poured in nine points in the opening half en route to an 17-point performance that earned the Minutemen a meeting with Heyworth on Friday night in the sectional championship game.

"Usually he's a three-point shooter so he was penetrating," Lexington coach Michael Zellar said. "We knew he would be face guarded, so he attacked the rim and he couldn't miss."

Blaine Friedmansky chipped in 10 points for the Minutemen — who have won three straight 1A regional plaques and won a sectional title in 2021 — while Tyler Steffa added seven points.

Wilson Kirby paced the Sabers with a game-high 18 points — including four three-pointers — with Peace Bumba and Owen Yeager contributing 10 points and four points, respectively.

"This is our third Sweet 16 in a row so our guys have been here, they know what the challenges are," Zellar said. "We're senior-led."

A solid crowd at Danville Area Community College thinned somewhat following Heyworth's 49-43 win against St. Teresa in the first sectional semifinal game that took place on Tuesday night.

Those that remained by the time the nightcap started at about 7:40 p.m. were eager to make noise. The Sabers' faithful occupied much of the bleachers opposite the benches and the Minutemen's purple-clad supporters.

Lexington's student section extended up nine rows of bleachers.

"You'll always see purple," Zellar said. "Friday is probably going to be worse. There'll probably be more (fans) on Friday than there were (Tuesday night). Lexington travels so well. Just a great community."

Lexington's triumph in the opening tip-off foreshadowed the long night ahead for STM.

Michael Olsen opened the scoring in the first quarter with a layup and a three-pointer that gave the Minutemen a 5-0 lead in the first two minutes of play.

Bumba responded with a bucket for the Sabers, but a three-pointer from Friedmansky, two baskets from Hari and a score from Steffa forced the Sabers to call timeout while trailing 12-5 with 3:09 left in the opening quarter.

"I thought we came out of the gates a little bit passive, not attacking," Martin said. "Kirby is a great shooter for us and he just couldn't get one to go down, so we tightened up a little bit."

Lexington built its edge to 19-7 by the end of a fast first frame that featured just one whistle for a foul. It added to its edge as scoring slowed in the second stanza, with field goals from Hari and Steffa joining with a free throw from Ethan Storm to increase the lead to 24-9 at halftime.

Offensive woes plagued the Sabers throughout a slow start; Andrew Tay led the way at halftime with three points while Bumba and Kirby added two points apiece.

"The message at halftime was, we've got to come out and attack," Martin said. "Just play basketball, have fun and put yourself in a chance to come back."

Lexington started the second half on a 5-0 run before the Sabers jolted back to life. A pair of free throws from Bumba and two three-pointers from Kirby chipped Lexington's lead to 31-17 with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter.

"I don't think a whole lot changed for Wilson," Martin said. "He's got the green light across half court for us. He did all year. I think the focus was some of the guys finding him on the perimeter a little more."

A mid-range response from Hari caused STM to call timeout with 3:31 remaining in the frame.

Unfazed, Kirby converted an and-one layup that cut the deficit to 33-20. On the next possession, the Sabers forced a jump ball to regain possession and a floater from Bumba trimmed the deficit to 11 points with two minutes left in the quarter.

But Hari clapped back with a layup of his own to spark a quick 4-3 Lexington scoring edge that helped it take a 37-25 lead into the final quarter.

"We cut it to eight or nine points there in the third quarter and a couple shots went our way and things could have changed," Martin said.

Kirby dropped another three-pointer to bring the Sabers within nine points on the first possession of the fourth quarter. Hari answered with a bucket that extended Lexington's lead to 39-28 on the following possession and sparked a 13-10 scoring edge to end the game.

The Sabers' season ended three days shy of their first sectional plaque since 2014 and nine days shy of their first-ever appearance in the IHSA state finals.

"It's exciting to be in this situation," Martin said. "Just proud of the commitment of our senior group and the hours and the time they put in to get to this spot. Maybe two or three years down the road, maybe we've been here before, just like Lexington has."