DES MOINES - Two down, one to go.
Much like it did in their opener against Exira, Elk Horn Kimballton, things went nearly exactly the way St. Mary's schemed it up in Thursday afternoon's semifinal as they raced away from Guthrie Center for a 62-49 victory.
The Panthers again controlled the glass, with a 35-22 rebounding advantage, including 18 on the offensive end. Their pressure defense led to 20 points off of turnovers, and they put their speed to use, forcing Guthrie Center big man Dustin Clark into early foul trouble and an extended stint on the Tiger sidelines.
"My post players really went at it," said St. Mary's head coach Brad Wilkening. "They worked hard, and their hard work paid off."
"To get here and win the way we are is amazing," said SM senior Connor Richardson. "I've never done anything this fun in my life."
St. Mary's continued to find rims inside of Wells Fargo Arena welcoming as they jumped out to a 12-6 lead four minutes in, with four points coming from Kennedy Drey and three apiece Nate and Luke Lenhart.
Clark and cousin Brandon Clark would keep things close in the first, however, as they accounted for all of the Tigers' first quarter points, helping them close with 14-12 after one.
Clark would pick up his third foul just 30 seconds into the second, sending him to the bench for the remainder of the half.
"That was key really," said Wilkening. "We wanted to go after him. We knew he was a good ball player, and we got two on him early."
St. Mary's, namely Luke Lenhart, took advantage.
The sophomore guard would proceed to bury four second quarter threes, and a two to boot, fueling a 19-6 St. Mary's advantage in the second quarter. With a three knocked down in the first quarter as well, Lenhart totaled 19 at the break as the Panthers led 33-18.
"Luke was shooting lights out," said Wilkening. "Lights out. He put the game on his shoulders."
"He was great," said fellow soph Kennedy Drey. "I thought they would go out and guard him. He kept popping threes and making them."
"After I saw a few go in, I felt like everything else I threw up there was going in," said Lenhart. "To get down here and shoot like that, amazing."
With Clark back in the lineup, Guthrie Center closed within 10 twice in the third quarter, but it was a 15-point Panther lead heading into the fourth at 46-31.
St. Mary's opened the fourth on a 7-2 run, with five coming from Richardson, opening up their biggest lead of the game at 53-33. The Tigers would get no closer than 13 the rest of the way.
Clark still managed to finish with 25 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Brandon Clark added 13 and Adam Courtney five. The Tigers were 15-of-36 from the floor and 0-for-8 from three.
Luke Lenhart finished 9-of-16 from the floor and 5-of-9 from three on his way to a 25-point effort. The sophomore added five rebounds and three assists. Richardson buried 3-of-4 from deep on his way to 17 points, three rebounds and five assists. Kennedy Drey totaled nine points and seven rebounds, Andy Drey had eight points and eight boards, Nate Lenhart had three points and two rebounds, and Bobby Ivey had five boards.
The Panthers were 21-of-50 from the floor, 8-of-15 from three and 12-of-19 at the line.
The physical game got chippy late as both teams wound up in foul trouble with 34 personals called Thursday.
Guthrie Center drops to 20-8 with the loss and met Cedar Falls NUH in the consolation finals. The Panthers moved to 26-1 to set up their Friday night matchup with #1 Danville (27-0).
The Bears have rode identical twins Michael and Steven Soukup to the finals as the pair has combined for 43 points per outing at the State tournament thus far.
"We've got to stop the Soukup twins, but they've got three or four players that can score it," said Wilkening. "It'll be different for us defensively. Offensively, they like to get out and run like we do. Should be a fun game."
"Hopefully, we can go in there and play better than we did today (Thursday)," said Drey. "Hopefully, we can show Danville what kind of team we are and pull through for the championship."