SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - The last time the Fatima Comets made an appearance in the Final Four, Tanner Gentges was age 2.
Gentges is all grown up now, and was perhaps the biggest factor Saturday in getting the Comets back among the state's elite.
Thanks to a 65-45 win over the Strafford Indians at Drury University, the Comets have earned their first Final Four trip since the 1995-96 season.
Gentges pumped in a game-high 21 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handled the bulk of the ballhandling for the Comets, who improved to 28-1 on the season.
"It feels great because all four years, our goal was to get to the Final Four," Gentges said. "Now we've finally made it, so it feels good that it's paid off."
It's equally sweet for Fatima coach Ryan Robertson, who was the leading scorer for Fatima the last time the Comets made the trip to Columbia.
"I'm just so happy for the kids," Robertson said. "It was pretty emotional in the locker room after the game. Just to see those guys and all the work they've done, to see them rewarded is what's worth the most."
The Comets will open the Final Four at 1:40 p.m. Thursday against St. Pius X: Kansas City (22-6) at Mizzou Arena. Gentges said it feels pretty special to be just one of four Class 3 teams still practicing.
"Having another week of basketball is nice - I don't want to go into a spring sport just yet," he said with a grin.
With Strafford keying on Patrick Schnieders, the Comets' leading scorer, early in the game, it was up to Gentges to take over. He did just that, scoring eight points as Fatima took a 14-12 lead after a frantic first quarter.
The teams took turns racing up the court, as they combined for 30 shot attempts in the period. Not much was going in, however, as the Comets shot just 5-of-16 from the floor and the Indians were just 5-of-14.
Fortunately for Fatima, Gentges hit three of his four shots and nailed both his free throws, as no other Comet had more than a bucket.
"I think it was big to bring a lot of energy," the senior said of his first-quarter play. "We just created our offense out of that. We got out in transition and scored that way."
The game was tied three times in the second quarter, but the Comets were able to finish with a flurry. With the score 26-24 in favor of Fatima, the Comets forced backto-back turnovers in the final 30 seconds of the half, both of them leading to layups by Jared Schulte.
That gave the Comets a 30-24 lead at intermission. But it could have been much greater, except for the fact they missed 13 layups in the first half.
"We had a quick halftime talk," Robertson said. "I thought our energy was through the roof, so there were no complaints there. I just said, "We're up six and we've missed a ton of layups. Stay the course, because we're doing fine.'"
The Indians, ranked eighth in the state, cut the lead to three points just two minutes into the second half.
But the fourth-ranked Comets refused to wilt and eventually built the lead up to as many as nine points. And when Gentges splashed home a 3-pointer with :03 left in the period, the Comets took a 46-38 lead into the fourth.
"We've been telling Tanner all year long how good we think he is, and I think tonight he discovered what type of point guard he is," Robertson said.
The Indians never got closer than 46-41 in the fourth quarter, and after that point, Fatima outscored Strafford 19-4.
Schnieders finally got hot, hitting two huge 3s and scoring eight of his 15 points.
About the only downside to the fourth-quarter dominance was the fact starting center Chad Stegeman left the game with a twisted ankle with less than two minutes remaining after scoring 14 points and grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds.
"He's the type of guy who can roll his ankles and usually be OK, but he said it was stinging pretty bad," Robertson said.
Robertson added the Comets' experience was the key to the dominant final quarter. The Indians, who have eight sophomores on their 12-man roster, shot just 2-of-14 in the frame, including a 1-of-10 effort on 3s.
"It was senior leadership," he said. "They just don't get panicked. We've been thrown in pressure cookers this year and they just keep executing. ... It takes talent to get here, but it's the passion and the energy these kids have that's been the difference."
The Indians, who end their season at 24-5, were paced by Jacob Wade's 10 points and 11 rebounds. Dallas Hester also had 10 points for Strafford.