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A chance at history.
A chance at vindication.
A chance to cap off quite the legacy at St. Malachy has arrived for the Tigers eighth-grade girls basketball team.
St. Malachy (26-1) will play for a Class 1A state championship at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday against Atwood-Hammond (25-2). The two schools met last year in the seventh-grade state championship game, and many of the same players return.
“I just can’t imagine two teams playing each other for both the seventh-grade and eighth-grade state championship,” St. Malachy head coach Bob Bolton said. “We really don’t have anything to lose. Atwood-Hammond’s on top, and they’re the ones with the target on their backs. They’ve already earned what they earned last year. If we want something, it’s time to step up to the plate.”
St. Malachy clinched its berth in the state championship game with a 29-19 win against Springfield Little Flower in Saturday night’s state semifinal game in Clinton.
St. Malachy led 8-4 at the end of the first quarter, 16-9 at halftime and 24-12 to start the fourth quarter.
Balanced scoring helped the Tigers, with Kayonna Bufford leading the way with nine points while Andie Bolton added eight points to help compensate for poor free throw shooting (9-of-28). Anna Worley (five points), Kaia Bowen (four points) and Grayson Carver (three points) also chipped in.
“We went back into our standard (zone) defense (in the semifinal), and it makes them so much happier because they’re much more comfortable in that,” Bob Bolton said. “We were able to pull it out.”
Earlier on Saturday, the Tigers overcame a slow start to earn a 33-26 win against Bourbonnais Maternity BVM in the state quarterfinals.
St. Malachy trailed 12-10 at halftime after the first quarter ended in a 2-2 tie.
The Tigers held a slim 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter before outscoring Bourbonnais Maternity 11-5.
The victory was a relief for the Tigers. A loss would have ended their season after only one game at state.
“Like I kept on saying to them, ‘We’re here,’” Bob Bolton said. “’You made the effort to get here, and now if you come up short, it’s not a failure of a season because if you look at your record, you’ve done well, but I’m thinking you all want to be here for a specific reason — to show people that last year wasn’t a fluke, and you guys are one of the most talented teams in the state.’”
Andie Bolton led the Tigers with 10 points while Worley contributed eight points and Bufford supplied seven points. Bowen had a strong game with six points and Carver added two points.
“I challenged them,” Bob Bolton said, who credits assistant coach Kristy Brandon for helping with the team’s success this year. “Sometimes (during this run) it didn’t seem as special this year as it was last year. There was much more elation last year. Maybe they were just treating it more business-like (on Saturday), but they ended up playing really well.”
The Tigers advanced to state after a 26-16 win against Armstrong-Ellis in the sectional championship game last Wednesday night at St. Malachy.
Worley and Andie Bolton each scored seven points while Bufford (five points), Carver (three points), Bowen (two points) and Lucy Rulon (two points) also contributed.
Now the Tigers will try to make their 15-game winning streak reach 16 games and capture the first-ever girls basketball state title in the school’s history.
If they do, the names of Andie Bolton, Bufford, Bowen, Carver, Rulon, Worley, Rachel Daugherty, Jessica Padilla, Shelby Sisk, Gabby Skipping-Gill and Shantel Smith will go down in St. Malachy girls basketball history.
“I hope they’re a little more comfortable this year,” Bob Bolton said. “Atwood-Hammond is a talented team. They’ll push you the entire time, and that’s going to be our job to see if we can handle their press and get some baskets off it. We have the talent to win. My job is to not screw them up.”