Two consecutive state basketball championships did little to fuel expectations this season when first-year coach Stephen Strojny took over the St. Thomas More girls’ basketball program.
The loss of two first-team all-staters, plus the graduation of two other key contributors, was expected to derail the Cougars’ dreams of winning a third straight title.
However, that’s the exact position No. 5 St. Thomas More (30-5) finds itself in against No. 6 Salmen (27-4) for the Class 4A crown in Friday’s LHSAA/State Farm Top 28 Tournament at 6 p.m. at the University of Louisiana-Monroe’s Fant-Ewing Coliseum.
“The big thing for us has been to just take it one game at a time,” Strojny said.
“When the season started, there wasn’t anyone in any basketball circle that figured we’d have a smidgen of an opportunity to win state considering what we lost.”
Senior center Paije Hall, a a 6-foot-3 Tulane signee, has a been force inside for STM, averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds, while senior guard and UL-Lafayette signee Jodie Quinn (10 points) are the team’s lone returning starters.
Junior point guard Courtney Chain (10.8 ppg), junior guard Allison Derise (9.0) and senior reserve guard Payton Walker (7.0) have also helped the Cougars extend their win streak to 11 games after a semifinal upset of No. 1 seed and previously undefeated Warren Easton.
“I still don’t think we’ve played a perfect game yet,” Strojny said. “We’ve played some really good basketball, but I think we’re on pace to peak in our last game of the season, which was our goal.”
The opportunity to face STM is one of possible atonement for Salmen, which lost 56-39 to the Cougars in last year’s title game.
For the first time since last year’s final, Spartans coach Kevin Anderson replayed the video of that contest — a game in which STM jumped to a 19-5 first-quarter lead and never looked back.
“We wanted to show it to the team to try and remember that feeling,” Anderson said. “We told them you don’t want to have that feeling of getting all the way there and not quite getting it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to take this championship.”
Salmen, which last won a state title in 1997, was placed back into the tournament a week ago and took advantage of that life line with a 63-34 victory over second-seeded St. Michael the Archangel.
Center Kalani Brown, a 6-5 sophomore and daughter of former NBA player P.J. Brown, averages 19 points and 12 rebounds, followed by junior forward Megan Brown (no relation) at 15 points and senior point guard Macy DeGruy 11.
“At this point, there’s only two teams left, and we’re going throw it up at 6 o’clock,” Strojny said.
“We’re both going to play 100 percent. They’re going to play their style, and we’re going to play our style and we’re going to see who wins.”