ROLLA - Fatima girls basketball coach Dustin Hays has no doubt the Lady Comets are peaking at the right time.
"Absolutely," he said after Fatima cruised to 52-33 victory against Licking in a Class 3 sectional game Wednesday night at Missouri S&T. "You always want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year, and these girls are definitely doing that.
"They've really come together as a team, they're playing hard together, they want success for each other and that's really turned our team around."
It was evident Fatima (23-5) hadn't lost any momentum since knocking off St. James, the No. 1 team in the state, in the District 9 title game last Friday.
And the Lady Comets, who have now won 13 straight games, were clear about not getting complacent.
"We knew in order to win we had to play just as hard or harder than we did against St. James," Fatima junior Morgan Brandt said. "We needed to come out with the same intensity and do what we do best, which is play hard."
The Lady Comets jumped out to an early lead and eventually held the Lady Wildcats, ranked eighth in Class 3, to their lowest scoring total all season.
Licking, which entered the contest averaging 55.5 points per game, to go along with a 45-percent shooting percentage, was 12-of-40 from the field (30 percent) and committed 22 turnovers.
"We talked about it all year long, but especially in playoff basketball, your defense is going to carry you," Hays said. "Your offense isn't always going to be there every night, but your defense and your defensive intensity - that's something we can control. You control that every single night and that's something that we take pride in."
Licking (25-3) scored the first two points of the game, but Fatima led the rest of the way to end the Lady Wildcats' seven-game winning streak.
"We came out with really good intensity," Hays said. "We hit some big 3s , made some big shots early, and kind of got the momentum on our side.
"From there, it was our defensive intensity. We didn't let them get comfortable."
Brandt scored a game-high 17 points and tallied five steals to lead the Lady Comets, who were 18-of-42 (42.8 percent) from the field and 6-of-12 from beyond the arc.
Licking junior Megan Smith scored 16 points after going 6-of-19 from the field and Bailie Osborn, the Wildcats' leading scorer (17.3 ppg), was limited to four points.
"I think our defensive intensity the whole game is intimidating to teams," Brandt said.
The Lady Comets might have been equally intimidating on the offensive end - especially in the early going.
Sammey Bunch hit back-to-back 3s after coming off the bench to help spark a 12-0 run that gave Fatima a 17-5 lead with 4:02 left in the first quarter.
Licking responded with a 7-1 run to cut its deficit to 18-12 with 7:12 to play in the second quarter, but Fatima was able to stop the momentum in a hurry.
"That's huge," Hays said. "Basketball is a game of runs and we've just got to limit theirs. I think that was probably the only major run they made all night, so that was important. We just had to tighten up our defense a little lit."
Offensively, Fatima continued to stay aggressive.
Brandt capped a 9-2 run to give the Lady Comets a 13-point advantage with 3:31 left before halftime as Fatima entered the locker room with a 27-16 edge.
Brandt hit her second trey of the game to cap an 8-0 run that gave the Lady Comets a 35-16 lead with 4:36 to play in the third quarter. Licking was able to cut its deficit to 13 with 1:04 left in the frame, but that's as close as the Lady Wildcats got.
Fatima will play Ash Grove in a quarterfinal at 6 p.m. Saturday at Drury University in Springfield.
The Comets don't anticipate changing what they've been doing the last 13 games.
"We've just got to keep playing our brand of basketball," Hays said. "We beat the No. 1 team in the state, Licking was No. 8 - if we keep playing hard, if we keep playing together, it doesn't really matter who we play."