St. Thomas More girls basketball coach Stephen Strojny foresaw a close first half and second half game against Northside, but the Cougars crossed up their coach by dominating second half. _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE - St. Thomas More's Carly Sloane, left, tries to avoid Northside defenders Tach Ledet, center, and Brittany Montgomery last month at STM.

Top-seeded St. Thomas More has taken a unusual approach to the playoffs.

Two games and two victories later you would have to say the philosophy has worked with the Cougars (23-5) set to host No. 8 Ursuline (24-5) in a Class 4A quarterfinal at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“We prepare for each game like we’re the No. 32 seed, not the No. 1 seed,” STM coach Stephen Strojny said. “When you start believing you’re the No. 1 seed and carry yourself that way, you kind of run out of places to go and have a tendency to get complacent. We don’t want that to happen.”

Strojny said his club has incrementally improved through the playoffs, handling No. 32 Assumption (77-24) and No. 16 Bossier (70-50) — both at home, where the Cougars are 12-1 this season.

Senior Bailey Hemphill led four players in double figures in the win over Bossier with 18 points followed by Avery Breaux (15), Carly Sloan (14) and Grace Barrilleaux (10).

To reach the Top 28 Tournament after a year’s absence, the Cougars have to try and scale an Ursuline team that features a front line of 6-foot-2 freshman Kennedi Jackson and 5-10 eight-grader Kiersten Nelson. The Lions are led in scoring by 5-10 sophomore guard Kourtney Weber (17.6 points per game).

“I think we have a bunch of tough kids on our team,” Strojny said. “They don’t want the season to end. We’re preparing for Ursuline as if they were the No. 1 seed, and we’re No. 8 seed. Our kids believe we’re the underdogs.”

RAYNE, IOTA PREPARED FOR LONG HAUL: Given the makeup of its district, Rayne is accustomed to long bus rides that come with playing in a Lake Charles-based district.

But not even the No. 6 Wolves (29-2) have adequately prepared for Thursday’s more than three-hour trip to No. 14 Fair Park (19-7) in Shreveport in a Class 4A state quarterfinal at 6 p.m.

“When I first started, an older coach told me to schedule close and where they had good food. I kind of followed that,” Rayne coach Chester Randall said with a laugh. “I’m about to change that and take a couple of long trips to prepare them for times like this.”

Top-seeded Iota, also of Acadia Parish, faces a similar path with a 200-mile trek to Tallulah to face No. 24 Madison (13-9) in a Class 3A quarterfinal at 6 p.m.

“The kids really enjoy each other’s company, so they’ll take advantage of a day off of school and enjoy the team bonding,” Iota coach Meghann LeJeune said. “I think they’re focused. I know it’s tiresome, but we won’t be in the bus for longer than 90 minutes at a time.”

Rayne gained valuable experience in last year’s quarterfinals, falling at eventual state champion Salmen 51-48.

The Wolves returned the nucleus of that squad with seniors Charlesha Dugas and Whitley Larry. They went on to a blitz their 3-4A competition by more than an average of 20 points, starting with a 48-20 road victory over Leesville.

“That was our first district game on the road, and I could tell they were aggravated,” Randall said. “We didn’t play well that night. We didn’t shoot well at all. I’m going to mentally prepare them for that long ride, give them what to expect.”

LeJeune plans for her team to have a shoot-around at Harrisonburg High followed by lunch to try to break up the trip to Madison, which was formerly McCall High School.

After finishing in a tie for fifth in District 2-3A, Madison has registered upsets of Loyola Prep (55-52) and E.D. White (64-59).

“This is a good warmup and atmosphere to see if you can make it to the tournament,” LeJeune said. “They have a big gym and a good fan base with lots of energy.”