BELLEVILLE _ Start strong and keep moving on. Sacred Heart did both in their Class 2A sub-state semifinal with Smith Center on Friday night at Republic County High School.
The Knights never trailed, scoring 14 unanswered points to start the game and never letting the lead slip below double figures in the final three quarters of their 67-27 victory.
"We wanted to pour it on early because you don't want to leave a team like Smith Center in the game," Sacred Heart coach Pat Martin said. "They can be dangerous.
"It was a great second-round game for us and now we have to get ready for another one."
With its 13th consecutive win, Sacred Heart improves to 19-3 and earned a spot in tonight's sub-state title contest against Bennington, a 61-55 winner over Republic County. Smith Center ended its season at 10-13.
Trace Leners opened the game with a bucket in the lane before Charlie Skidmore and Caleb Jordan scored six points each in putting the Knights up 14-0 with 4:37 to play in the first quarter.
"We knew we had to start strong," Jordan said. "Smith Center was a good football team and we knew they would be physical.
"We had to give 100 percent on every play and then play as a team. I think we did that to the best of our abilities."
After the Knights built the early 14-point lead, the margin was still at 14 midway through the second quarter after a basket from Smith Center's Colby Benoit made it 31-17. The Redmen did not score again in the first half, while a 3-pointer from Jordan and five consecutive points from reserve Blake Palen put Sacred Heart up 39-17 at halftime.
"We know every team is going to give us their best," Jordan said. "When we didn't score on a couple of possessions, Smith Center made a run.
"But we just have to keep it between the ears and keep playing hard on defense. Eventually we're going to score and get the win."
Sacred Heart's lead was 54-24 at the end of the third quarter, leading to a continuous running clock in the final period.
"Hats off to our starting five," Martin said. "If somebody isn't hitting, somebody else is stepping up. And we got great bench help tonight. Blake Palen and Cooper Turpin both played well for us."
Jordan had 16 points at halftime and added seven in the third quarter to lead his team with 23. He also moved past former Sacred Heart standout Todd Jadlow (1982-84) into second place on the school's career scoring list, now with 1,190 points.
Skidmore finished with 14 points, Palen had seven and Leners and David Anderson had six points each. The Knights also had a 41-26 rebounding advantage, with Jordan and Palen grabbing eight rebounds each.
Seniors Brett Meyer and Trace Haven led the Redmen with six points each, with Meyer also collecting nine rebounds.
Tonight's title game will mark the fourth consecutive year Sacred Heart and Bennington (17-4) have met in the postseason. The Bulldogs won in 2015, with the Knights winning the last two years.
"Bennington is playing well and has played well all season," Martin said. "They've got good speed outside and have a 6-10 guy that can cause problems for us.
"We'll work on some things Saturday morning before we leave and be ready to go."
Bennington 61, Republic County 55
Republic County rallied from a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take a brief 53-52 lead, but Bennington closed the game on a 9-2 run to earn its spot in the title game.
Republic County still had a chance with inside of 15 seconds remaining. The Buffaloes trailed 58-55 and forced a turnover, but gave it right back on a double-dribble violation without ever getting a shot to tie. Bennington's J.J. Allen closed it out with a three-point play with nine seconds remaining.