KEVIN M. COX/The Daily News file photo

La Marque’s Michael Hardeman scores over Hitchcock’s Darnell Evans during a game Dec. 3. The Cougars will take on West Orange-Stark at 7 p.m. today in a Class 3A, Region III area round playoff game.

LA MARQUE – The La Marque Cougars have seen their share of talented teams this season, yet West Orange-Stark stands out.

One of the more balanced teams in Class 3A, Region III, the Mustangs will present a serious barrier to La Marque’s bid to return to the state semifinals when the two schools meet in an area round game in Winnie at 7 p.m. today.

“They’re the same exact team we defeated in last year’s area round, only they’re more experienced and an all-around good team,” Cougars coach David Montanto said. “They’re the kind of team that makes you pick your poison and kind of makes you play a chess game against them.”

Montano knows that La Marque (19-12) stands a better chance if they play defense similar to the manner they did in Monday’s 59-57 bi-district round win over Houston Washington.

The Cougars slowed down the pace against the more up-tempo Tigers, keeping them from establishing a much faster level of play.

“We can’t run and shoot against them,” Montano said. “If we do that, it plays right into their game and puts us in trouble.”

West Orange-Stark (26-8) advanced with a 75-61 win over Coldspring in the bi-district round. Second-year coach Jason Wilkins relies on senior guard Laquarious Page, who enters tonight’s game averaging 17.7 points, 3.1 assists and 3.1 steals, each of which leads the Mustangs.

The team also has five other players who average between 6-13 points, displaying an offensive balance that will challenge the Coogs.

Montano said he will look to senior post Michael Hardeman to be the lynchpin of the La Marque offense.

The 6-foot, 3-inch tall Hardeman had 21 points and nine rebounds in Monday’s win to go along with three blocked shots.

“He’s always going to be a big part of what we do,” Montano said. “Any time he has the ball down low, we expect him to score or go hard to the basket and draw a foul. When he’s doing that, our team is better for it.”

The winner of today’s game will play the winner of the Cleveland-Houston Sterling matchup, which is also being played today.

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