FARMINGTON • As her eyes welled up with tears, Whitfield center Aijha Blackwell made a promise to her teammates following a one-sided loss to Strafford in last year's Class 3 girls basketball state championship game.
"I told everyone, 'We're coming back here and it's going to be different next time,' " the 6-foot junior recalled.
Blackwell made good on her declaration Saturday night.
The Warriors, with Blackwell leading the way, took control early and never let up in beating Saxony Lutheran 59-43 in a Class 3 state quarterfinal at jam-packed Farmington Community Civic Center.
Blackwell will get her wish.
Whitfield (22-6) advanced to face Strafford (31-0), the two-time defending Class 3 champ, at 2:40 p.m. Friday in a state semifinal at Hammons Student Center on the Missouri State Unversity campus in Springfield.
"This is what we've wanted all year," Whitfield junior guard Nia Griffin said.
Blackwell and Griffin led the Warriors to one of their most impressive performances of the season. They roared out to a nine-point, first-quarter lead, stretched the margin to 16 in the second period and then held off a Saxony rally in third quarter.
"We got off to a strong start, that's one of the things we've struggled with this season," Whitfield coach Mike Slater said. "That was really the emphasis tonight."
Blackwell, an NCAA Division I prospect who says Louisville is at the top of her list, triggered a 10-0 run over the final 3 minutes and 7 seconds of the opening quarter that put her team up to stay 15-6.
Senior Taylor Lawson-Hicks, who finished with 10 points, and sophomore Jade Moore added key baskets in the game-changing spurt.
"Right from the start, we were so focused," Griffin said. "Maybe the most focused we've been all year."
The Warriors pumped the lead to 34-18 early in the third quarter before Saxony reeled off eight successive points, led by Laurel Mueller, to get back into the game.
With Blackwell on the bench for a few minutes following a hard fall to the court, Griffin stepped up with a dagger-like 3-pointer that quelled the comeback.
Blackwell re-entered the game seconds later and converted on an old-fashioned 3-point play to put her team back in control 40-27.
"I was proud, we made a run," Saxony coach Sam Sides said. "Most of the time, we score our points in the paint and we couldn't because of their size."
Mueller led the Crusaders with 10 points.
Whitfield used a strong defensive effort, especially in the first half, to stymie the Crusaders. Tajah Foster-Walker and Kelsey Blakemore added key steals.
The Warriors have kept their eyes on a return trip to state the entire season.
"It's not like we talk about it all the time, but it's been what we've worked for since we first started practicing," Griffin said.
Whitfield has played a rugged schedule designed to prepare for Strafford, which has won 80 successive games to go along with the two state titles. The Warriors have lost two times each to Incarnate Word Academy and Kirkwood and also dropped a game to Edwardsville, which finished fourth in Illinois' Class 4A state tournament.
Now, the return match with Strafford, which won last year's title tilt 80-39, is on.
And Blackwell could not be happier.
"We're a different team, a better team now," Blackwell said. "It's time to go out and show it."