LAKE CHARLES — Skeptics wondered if second-seeded University High was as good as advertised.
Suffice it to say St. Louis Catholic guard P.J. Hardy is sold.
Hardy watched as Jalen Johnson scored 14 of his game-high 27 points to help lift University to a 71-57 victory over St. Louis in a Class 3A semifinal game Wednesday night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Boys Top 28 tournament.
“They lost three starters from last year, and we thought coming in they weren’t as good,” Hardy said. “They showed us they were just as good.”
The Cubs (30-4) also proved their mettle while moving into position to win a third straight Class 3A state title.
Third-seeded St. Louis trailed by three points at halftime and scored seven points in a 28.6-second span to close the third quarter, once again trailing by three.
Each time the Cubs had the answer, including a 26-15 fourth-quarter surge. U-High advances to play fourth-seeded Wossman (35-8) in the 3A title game set for 6 p.m. Saturday at Burton Coliseum.
A halfcourt 3-pointer at the buzzer by Casey Jones Jr. lifted Wossman to a 60-57 win over top-seeded Peabody in the other 3A semifinal.
“(St. Louis) is a team that continues to battle,” University coach Joe Spencer said.
“We got that lead (in the third quarter), and most people are thinking we’ve got a chance to blow it open here. I was hoping that would happen, but they just battle so hard.
“They play together so well with eight seniors. They weren’t going to go down without a fight. I was proud of our guys. I didn’t think we panicked.”
There were reasons why the Cubs didn’t panic and they started with the 6-foot-7 Johnson and 6-6 Wayde Sims.
Sims, who scored eight third-quarter points, finished with 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Johnson added nine rebounds, giving U-High’s star duo two more rebounds than the entire St. Louis team.
Spencer Mays came off the bench to score 10 points. Hardy, who scored 14 points, was the lone double-figures scorer for the Saints (25-5).
“(Spencer) told us we needed to pick it up,” Johnson said. “We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Going out on top is the most important thing. I want to do this for my school, my family and the city of Baton Rouge.”
The teams came in with different agendas. St. Louis wanted to push the tempo and wear down the taller, more physical Cubs. The plan worked to a degree before U-High’s size and experience ultimately won out.
University built a 16-9 first-quarter lead only to see St. Louis close it out with a 9-2 run to tie it at 18. The Cubs led 27-24 after halftime and opened up a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
Colby Rodriguez scored five of his nine points in St. Louis’ third-quarter frenzy. What was a 45-35 lead was suddenly 45-42 when the fourth quarter began. The Saints got the ball first and turned it over.
Mays scored one basket and reserve Eric Reed scored twice before Johnson scored six straight points with a 3-pointer and an three-point play. Quickly, the Cubs had an eight-point lead that they would add to.
“You’ll probably see both of those guys (Johnson and Sims) on TV in the next couple of years,” St. Louis coach Rick LeBato said. “They didn’t fold.
“We knew in the halfcourt game it would be very difficult. We did get the game of scramble going several times. But we turned the ball over too many times, especially down the stretch.”