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The Bucks slam East Linn Christian 62-21, wrap up second place in Tri-River Conference

After scrapping and clawing its way through the toughest conference the past two seasons only to come up just shy of making the state playoffs, the St. Paul girls basketball team finally broke through this winter.

The Bucks not only proved themselves to be the clear No. 2 team in the conference behind No. 1-ranked Kennedy, but sitting at No. 5 in the OSAA rankings, they are all but assured of a state playoff berth no matter what happens in the upcoming district tournament this week.

SETH GORDON - St. Paul junior Emma Connor and the rest of the Buckaroos have gone from a team on the outside of the playoffs over the past few seasons to one of the top 2A programs in the state this year.
St. Paul (20-4, 10-2 Tri-River Conference) has performed like an elite team all year and capped its best regular season at the 2A level with a 62-21 home win over East Linn Christian in the regular-season finale Feb. 8.

"The last two years have been murderer's row in this league," head coach Dave Matlock said. "Finally it became a little more human this year and we became more mature. With that combination, you see what can happen."

A year ago, the Bucks finished tied for fourth, but lost a tiebreaker game for the final spot in the district tournament. St. Paul then had to watch as the Tri-River Conference not only sent four teams to the state playoffs — two via the district tournament and two from at-large bids based on ranking — but all four advanced to the finals, finishing second, third, fourth and sixth.

Battling those teams the last two seasons prepared the Bucks to take a step forward this season. The team has learned to maintain its energy level and focus for every game, and with that has come more self-confidence.

"They now kind of know what it takes and they actually thrive on that challenge," Matlock said. "The last couple of years it was always kind of a daunting task and hoping we could get through that. Now, they really believe that they have earned and deserve to get to that spot."

That consistency was on display against the Eagles, as the Bucks dominated the first two quarters to stake a 25-12 lead by halftime. St. Paul struggled for a short spell early in the third period, turning the ball over a few times against East Linn Christian's 1-3-1, but recovered quickly and finished the contest by outscoring the visitors 17-0 in the fourth quarter.

"After you get a big lead…it's hard to come out with that same energy. No matter how much you say that, sometimes it's just an easy letdown, but they got it back. We ran the break well tonight, which we need to do."

The Bucks began the game with hot shooting from the outside, but as the game wore on, relied more on its transition game and post players.

Isabelle Wyss scored a team-high 24 points, but the Bucks were still balanced offensively, getting 13 from Erin Counts, nine from Logan Robinson and eight from Emma Connor.

"That makes us tough to beat when we can run like that, shoot like that and play defense like that," Matlock said.

St. Paul will host the winner of Monday's district quarterfinal game between Central Linn and Western Mennonite at 6 p.m. Wednesday. With a win, the Bucks will secure an automatic bid to the state playoffs and move on to play at Kennedy in the district championship Friday night.

"It's tough to beat a team three times and we're going to have to do that," Matlock said.

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