Boys Top 28 tournament: Trek for three-peat continues as University High takes on St. Louis in semifinal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- University High boys basketball coach Joe Spencer

The number three is as much a part of basketball as the ball and court.

University High coach Joe Spencer knows how a 3-point goal or a three-second violation can change the momentum of a game.

The second-seeded Cubs (29-4) are on a quest to conquer a different, elusive three — a third straight Class 3A state title. That, Spencer said, is a two-step approach that starts at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Boys Top 28 tournament.

“You never take an opportunity to play in the Top 28 for granted,” U-High point guard Marshall Graves said. “Our goal is to win a state title. But we have to take one game at a time. Really, one possession at a time. You leave nothing to chance.”

U-High plays No. 3 St. Louis Catholic (25-4) in a Class 3A semifinal that helps highlight the second day of the five-day tournament. Fourth-seeded Wossman (34-8) meets No. 1 Peabody (34-1) in the first 3A semifinal set for 4:30 p.m.

The games are part of a five-game semifinal schedule. The Cubs have a chance to win three straight titles for the first time in school history. U-High went back-to-back in Class 1A in Class in 1983 and 1984 but finished as the runner-up to Grambling in 1985. UHS teams led by Glen “Big Baby” Davis won 2A titles in 2002 and 2004, but lost to Lakeview in the 2003 semifinals.

For now, the only relevant history lesson for the Cubs concerns last year. U-High ousted hometown favorite St. Louis 51-40 in the semifinals. The teams know each other well. Though fans may look ahead to a possible matchup with Peabody, a 4A power that dropped to 3A, Spencer said U-High won’t.

P.J. Hardy, a 6-foot senior, leads St. Louis with averages of 22 points, five rebounds and four assists. The Saints are guard-oriented again and count on averages of eight points and six rebounds from 6-1 Kelvin Henry.

“They were really good last year, and I think they’re even better this year,” Spencer said of St. Louis. “They’re very guard oriented, and they do what they do well. Hardy is a very good player and you see he’s matured physically and gotten better since last year.

“It was a great game last year and with it being in Lake Charles it’s like a home game for them. One big thing that I’ve seen is that they’re deeper. There are similarities and differences.”

The decision of former UHS point guard Skylar Mays, now an LSU signee, to transfer to Nevada-based Findlay Prep sent some shock waves around the state last summer. The Cubs embraced the wave of change.

LSU signee Wayde Sims (6-6) and 6-7 Jalen Johnson evolved into one of the state’s dominanent duos. Sims averages 21.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. Johnson has enjoyed a breakout year and is averaging 21.8 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Graves (6-3) averages 8.0 points and 5.6 assists. Robert Gardner (6-3) is a defensive stopper. John Jones, son of LSU coach Johnny Jones, adds 7.8 points a game. Mays’ brother Spencer, a sophomore, adds 6.3 points per game off the bench.

“I’ve never seen two guys on the same team average over 21 points a game before,” Spencer said. “Wayde has improved his outside shooting. They’re both inside-out guys.

“You can’t discount what the other guys have done. They’ve all found their role and performed.”

A winning playoff performance Wednesday is job one for the Cubs now.

“St. Louis can play a very high level and a fast pace,” Graves said. “We’ve got to be prepared for anything that might happen.”