The Effingham girls basketball team's regular season had few blemishes. A four-point loss to Olney in early December was one of them.
Consider the Hearts redeemed. Thoroughly redeemed.
Effingham opened the postseason Tuesday in highly impressive fashion, avenging that loss to the Lady Tigers in emphatic fashion with a 57-24 win at the Centralia Regional.
The Hearts (26-3) extended their winning streak - a streak that started directly after that early-season loss to Olney - to 22 games and added to their school record win total.
Second-seeded EHS moves on to Thursday's 7:30 p.m. title game against top-seeded Breese Mater Dei (24-5).
"I didn't have much to say to them after the game other than that was great," Effingham coach Jeff Schafer said. "That was as good as we could do it."
There were numerous positives for Schafer's team on Tuesday against the third-seeded Lady Tigers (21-7), but the Hearts' relentless defensive effort stood out.
Olney wound up shooting just a shade over 18 percent from the field for the game (9 for 49), including 4 of 18 shooting from leading scorer Kelsey Shipman.
"It was probably one of the best defensive efforts that we've put out there for 32 minutes against a team with 21 wins," said Schafer, whose team has allowed well under 40 points per game since starting the season with back-to-back losses. "It was just phenomenal."
The Hearts also outrebounded Olney 37-22 and connected on 9-of-24 3-pointers, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc in the opening quarter, helping them take charge right from the start.
Josie Zerrusen capped the opening frame with a three-pointer just before the buzzer, giving Effingham a 15-6 lead. The Hearts quickly extended to a double-digit lead in the second quarter and took a 27-14 lead into halftime when Caitlyn Kaufman found Zerrusen for another three-pointer just before the break.
Zerrusen scored all 13 of her points in the first half, as EHS hit 5 of 11 from three-point range in the opening 16 minutes and recorded eight assists on its first nine field goals.
"I thought we moved the ball awesome," Schafer said. "We made the extra pass. We got some real easy layups and it started looking like a clinic there for a while."
But it turns out the Hearts were just getting warmed up.
Effingham hit three more three-pointers in the third quarter and found itself with a 20-point lead heading into the fourth after Kelli Utz capped the frame with a steal and fast-break bucket.
Olney wound up hitting just 1-of-14 from the field in the frame and one of its first 20 from the field in the second half. The Lady Tigers hit just three field goals in the second half all told.
And while Olney was going ice cold, Utz and Kaufman were heating up for Effingham.
Kaufman wound up scoring 15 of her 17 points in the second half. She also finished with three steals, three assists and four rebounds.
Utz wound up with 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists, but her defensive work on Shipman - who averages roughly 17 ppg - was even more impressive.
"When this season's over - I know it's not for while - I don't wanna give up that No. 2," Schafer said of his point guard's uniform number. "And you look at her defense and she's guarding Shipman, holds her to nine points, two points a quarter under her average.
"We just did a phenomenal job on her. She's such a great player; she's their heart and soul. It was just a great job defensively on them all."
Olney was without the services of standout sophomore point guard Marley Miller, who went down with a season-ending injury in late January.
"Unfortunately, one of their better players got hurt," Schafer said. "But, you know, that's part of it. We played the regional finals without our starting center two years in a row, and there's nothing you can do about that. She's definitely a great player, but I don't know if it would have mattered tonight."
Miller had 15 points and 10 rebounds in Olney's win against the Hearts earlier in the year, a game Schafer feels his team let slip away.
"We led down there for a long time and kind of blew that game," Schafer said.
But now, his team has redemption - and a shot at winning its first sectional title since 2006. A highly-respected Mater Dei program stands in the way, however.
The Lady Knights were in the Class 3A state ranking most of the season before losing to T-Town recently. Like EHS, stingy defense has been Mater Dei's calling card.
"I don't look for it to be too high scoring," Schafer said. "I look for it to be a slugfest. It's going to come down to who makes the plays, who rebounds the best and executing our offense against their pressure defense."
The matchup with Mater Dei is another tough postseason draw for EHS, but Schafer's team didn't let that same scenario affect it on Tuesday.
"(This was) probably the only (opening-round matchup of 20-win teams) in the state," Schafer said. "We knew it two months ago and we didn't complain about it. We just got ready and prepared ourselves for this game."
Zerrusen tied Utz for game-high rebounding totals with seven, while Jantzen Michael had a team-high five assists off the bench. Maddy Field added three rebounds and two assists off the bench in the first quarter alone.
Effingham 57, Olney 24
Effingham 15 12 12 18 - 57
Olney 6 8 4 6 - 24
Effingham - Kaufman 17, Zerrusen 13, Utz 11, Robb 6, Totten 3, Stephenson 5, Michael 2, Field 0, Beals 0, Weiser 0, Willis 0, Wilson 0.
Olney - Shipman 9, Gassman 4, Wisner 3, Harrison 2, Spillman 2, Sechrest 2, Anderson 2.