When the high school basketball postseason rolls around, Columbia typically finds itself as one of the smaller fish in the Class 3A pool.
Anticipating as much, coach Mark Sandstrom doesn’t backed away from taking on bigger schools in his nonconference schedule.
That’s how the Eagles ended up playing in Belleville East’s Chick-fil-A Classic, where Missouri heavyweight St. Mary’s handed them their seventh loss of the season, 70-51, Wednesday night.
But such competition, Sandstrom says, tempers his team for a regional field that this season will include the likes of East St. Louis and Cahokia.
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“We’re capable of beating teams like that,” he said. “We haven’t played our best yet, but you’re not supposed to until the end of February. Hopefully we’ll get there, and this (tournament) will help us.”
At 15-2, St. Mary’s fits the profile of the teams that have defeated Columbia this year. Those seven teams have a combined winning percentage of .724, and three of them have appeared on state polls.
Sandstrom said the Eagles have already grown by their experience. They started the season at 1-4, then rattled off six straight victories. Columbia entered Wednesday’s tournament game having won three of its past four.
“We’ve just played better basketball overall,” said Sandstrom.
The Dragons showed Columbia how they came to be ranked No. 3 in the Missouri class 4A poll.
Columbia led 9-5 at the end of the first quarter but spotted the Dragons a 15-4 run that gave them a lead they would never surrender. Four St. Mary’s players scored in double figures, including Antonio Burks, who scored a game-high 18 points.
The Eagles shot a respectable 42 percent in the game but were pressed into committing 12 turnovers.
“We knew coming in that they were going to have a lot of intensity and bring a lot of pressure,” Columbia senior Jordan Holmes said of the Dragons. “They brought in a man-to-man press that really bothered us. We prepared for it during the week but didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
The Eagles still had their moments, like at the end of the third quarter when Holmes and Jon Peterson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cap a run that cut an 18-point St. Mary’s lead in half.
They also outrebounded the Dragons 33-23, which was key to the Eagles taking the early lead.
“We kept them out (of the paint), did a nice job on the glass and limited them to one shot,” Sandstrom said. “But, man, we missed some easy shots. That has a lot to do with adjusting to the speed of the game.”
Junior Yuri Collins, a Missouri State recruit, added 16 points for St. Mary’s, while Yahuza Rasas pitched in 13 with nine rebounds.
St. Mary’s advances to a semifinal game against Chaminade at 6 p.m. Friday. It will be the first time the St. Louis-area powers will face each other since 2006.
Holmes and Peterson led Columbia with 13 points each. Brennen van Breusegen scored 10 points off the bench.
Columbia will face Belleville East in the tournament’s consolation bracket semifinal at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“This game tonight, the kids figured out you have to be able to play 32 minutes. Tonight we played about 21 or 22,” Sandstrom said. “To beat a team like that, you can’t turn the ball over as much, you have to limit them to one shot and you have to play a complete 32 where you don’t fall asleep.”