The St. James Lady Tigers are seeking their first state quarterfinal berth since the 2009-10 campaign. Standing in the way are the Licking Lady Wildcats in a Missouri Class 3 Sectional playoff game tonight (Wednesday) in Rolla.
The last time they met the final score was a blowout, although the actual game was closer than that.
The St. James High School girls' basketball team isn't taking much stock in that game, however. Every opponent at this stage of the game is a major threat, particularly one that has won 22 games.
The St. James Lady Tigers are seeking their first state quarterfinal berth since the 2009-10 campaign. Standing in the way are the Licking Lady Wildcats in a Missouri Class 3 Sectional playoff game tonight in Rolla.
St. James (23-4) faces Licking (22-6) in the girls' sectional game at 7:45 p.m. on Billy Key Court at Missouri S&T's Gale Bullman Multi-Purpose Building. The boys' sectional game in Rolla pits Fatima (26-1) against Hartville (23-4) at 6 p.m. at the Bullman Building.
The St. James-Licking winner will meet the Fair Grove (21-7)-Ash Grove (23-6) sectional winner Saturday in Springfield on the campus of Drury University in quarterfinal action.
The quarterfinal survivor will compete in the Class 3 Final Four March 7-9 at the Mizzou Arena in Columbia. The Lady Tigers are attempting to advance to the state tournament semifinals for the fifth time in program history.
But Lady Tiger first-year head coach Terry Wells says his squad isn't worried about Columbia just yet. There's a loooong way to go to get there.
"Our community has been helpful with that," Wells said. "The community makes every game such a fun environment; my kids are not looking at Columbia, they want to play in Rolla (tonight). The girls don't take that for granted. They're dying to play in this game."
St. James, ranked No. 7 in the Missouri Class 3 final regular-season state poll, got to Rolla by capturing the District 9 Tournament championship with a 64-49 victory over Dixon. Licking advanced by beating Hartville 41-32 in the District 10 Tourney title game.
It will be the second meeting of the season between the two squads. On Dec. 20 at Licking the Lady Tigers fired out to a 27-17 first-quarter lead and went on to whip Licking 72-54. But it wasn't easy, as Licking rallied in the second period and it took another big third quarter for St. James to finally pull away.
In that game 5-10 senior forward M.J. Buschmann scored a game-high 22 points while sophomore guard Ashlee Marlatt added 17 and freshman guard Shauna Rinehart 10.
Megan Smith, a 5-9 sophomore guard, led Licking in the first game with 18 points while 6-0 sophomore forward Bailie Osborne had 12 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots.
"They're a dangerous team," Wells said of Licking. "The first time we played them it was a six-point game at half, then we came out and had a heck of a third quarter.
"This time of year anything can happen."
Having seen St. James up close and personal, Lady Wildcat head coach Steve Rissler has high praise for the Lady Tigers.
"I honestly think they're still the No. 1 team in the state," Rissler said of St. James. "I think they're the No. 1 threat to win state. You watch film, come in and game plan and hopefully you can handle their wave of defenders."
Certainly, defense is the key to the Lady Tigers, as it has always been anytime they have made a deep run in the state playoffs.
Offensively St. James is led by Buschmann, who averages 15.7 points, 5.7 steals and 3.6 steals while Marlatt averages 13.3 points, Rinehart 9.6 points and sophomore guard Alexis Uffmann 9.0 points, 7.4 assists and 4.3 steals.
From the three-point line Marlatt has hit 63 (37 percent) shots, Rinehart 42 (37 percent) and Buschmann 29 (31 percent).
The Lady Wildcats have overcome a big hit to their depth, losing two starters in December to season-ending knee injuries.
Leading the charge for Licking has been Osborne and Smith, who both average 14.8 points. Osborne also pulls down 10.4 rebounds, makes 2.6 steals and blocks 3.9 shots.
Also for the Lady Wildcats 5-10 senior center Vanessa Cook averages 7.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and shoots 66 percent from the field.
With less depth Licking is more deliberate with the ball.
"We play more ball control," Rissler said. "A nine-point lead for us is like a 25-point lead for someone else. We'll hold it; we don't have a lot of firepower."
Both coaches feel their respective conferences have prepared their squad for tonight's matchup. Licking was a 22-game winner but still finished fourth in the rugged Frisco League while St. James lost three games in the Four Rivers Conference, which included a total of five teams that were state-ranked at some point in the season.
"We finished fourth in our conference with a 4-4 record, but were just one or two foul calls away from totally changing that," Rissler said.
"Licking is big and strong; even their point guard is about 5-8 and pretty physically strong," Wells said. "I think the Four Rivers Conference kind of prepared us for that type of game."
Wells is not going to say his team is peaking, but he likes where the Lady Tigers are at right now.
"I was really happy with last week," he said. "The girls defended, and when we defend the offense takes care of itself."