Trojans nip Bucks 30-26 in Tri-River opener
The Dec. 19 game between the St. Paul and Kennedy girls basketball teams may have been the league opener for both programs, but it easily could have been mistaken for state playoff game, as the two juggernauts of the Tri-River Conference squared off at St. Paul High School.
On one side was the top-ranked Trojans, the 2016 state champions who had beaten St. Paul seven consecutive times in the past four years. On the other side was the undefeated Buckaroos, owners of the state's best defense.
In the end, Kennedy emerged the victor, claiming a 30-26 win to hand St. Paul its first defeat of the season. But the Bucks had plenty to be happy about after dictating the pace of the game in the second half and forcing the Trojans to play the kind of half-court, grind-it-out basketball that has made St. Paul so successful this season.
"It's always tough to lose one like that, but I came out of that feeling very satisfied in that we did everything we could to win that game," SPHS coach Dave Matlock said. "We have now leveled that playing field against Kennedy, and that's a huge factor because always in the past they push everybody around. They didn't push us around that night and that shows our maturity and our growing strength and confidence."
The Trojans raced out to a 9-2 lead after hitting a pair of early three-point shots, but the Bucks gradually turned things in the first half and entered the break down by just a handful of points. After weathering Kennedy's suffocating press, the Bucks avoided giving away possessions, which had been a key to the Trojans' previous wins in the series since St. Paul moved into the Tri-River Conference three years ago.
"They tried to press us early and didn't get much out of it," Matlock said. "And actually I've never seen this happen – they backed off and they took the press off. When was the last time Kennedy ever backed off like that?"
For the Trojans, co-head coach Peter Hall chalked up the game to missed opportunities. Lay-ins, open shots, the kind of possessions that can break a game open just didn't fall for Kennedy.
"That's just the game of basketball," Hall said. "We scored 11 points in the first quarter and we scored 19 the rest of the game. We missed opportunities to help keep the lead or extend the lead early on in the game for us, but that's part of growing as the season go on."
But the fact that the shots weren't falling against St. Paul likely wasn't coincidental, Hall said. The Bucks have the stingiest defense in the state, surrendering just under 23 points a game through the first nine contests of the season. No one has scored more than 40 points against St. Paul and Kennedy was one of just three teams to eclipse the 30-point mark against them this season.
Kennedy's defense is equally formidable, but in a much more frenetic fashion, using the endless reservoir of energy afforded by their deep bench to press teams into committing turnovers that lead to quick buckets in transition.
Between two of the best defenses in the state, there simply wasn't enough energy left on offense.
"Both teams made it a grind out game," Hall said. "We held them to 26, and they held us to 30, so it was a stalemate. Both teams were giving everything on defense and I think it left very little on offense."
After the game there was very little excitement in the Kennedy locker room. The players were slumped in their seats, staring at the floor.
"They weren't down or anything, they were just so tired," Hall said. "The effort was A-plus."
Although the Bucks finished the game on the losing side, Matlock drew a positive outlook from the result.
"We've grown up a lot this year in a lot of ways," Matlock said. "We've always had a good purpose about our energy and focus in our games, but sometimes in the past we've been too immature and not physically strong enough to impose our will on another team."
Not so on that night. The Trojans may have won, but they did so on St. Paul's terms and that's what makes all the difference to Matlock as the teams look forward to the remainder of the league schedule yet to come in 2018.