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Buckaroos struggle in 81-41 loss to No. 2 Western Mennonite, but rebound to beat Crosshill Christian 74-60

ST. PAUL — The St. Paul boys basketball team has already made great strides this season, it just didn't feel like it Friday night after a disheartening 81-41 home loss to No. 2 Western Mennonite.

In 2016-2017, the Buckaroos won just five games overall and only one in league, but had already doubled those totals entering Friday's game versus the Pioneers. SETH GORDON - Campbell Smith lifts a shot during St. Paul's 81-41 home loss to No. 2 Western Mennonite Friday night. Smith led the Bucks with 17 points.

St. Paul showed its mettle in bouncing back to throttle Crosshill Christian, a strong 1A program, 74-60 on the road Saturday night.

For second-year coach Todd Swan, who also served as an assistant in 2015-2016, it was the best he's seen the Bucks play since coming to St. Paul.

"Everything we had been working on for the last two years kind of clicked for the majority of that game offensively and defensively," Swan said. "It was fun."

It was pretty much the opposite situation from Friday night, when the Pioneers showed the Bucks just how far they still have to go.

"We don't like to learn through losses, but you definitely learn a lot in a game like this — where you're at and what you need to get better on," Swan said. "As far as I'm concerned they're the best team in 2A."

Western Mennonite took a 10-4 lead out of the gate, giving St. Paul fits with its full-court press. The Pioneers then scored 14 consecutive points en route to a 26-6 lead after one quarter.

Campbell Smith helped get the Bucks on track offensively in the second quarter, scoring 12 points, but St. Paul couldn't stem the tide defensively. Smith converted a three-point play to make it 33-11 two minutes into the second, but Western Mennonite responded with a 14-1 run over the next two and a half minutes and coasted to a 51-19 lead at the break.

"They've blown a lot of teams out," Swan said. "We try to play man, we try to stop penetration, but they kick it out, knock it down. You stay off, guard your man, they beat you to the rim. We're not at the level right now to stop something like that."

The Pioneers, who placed third at the 2A state tournament last year, withdrew their full-court pressure late in the second quarter and played their reserves for long stretches in the second half, but the lead still got as high as 41 early in the third quarter.

Campbell was the most aggressive and therefore effective player offensively for St. Paul, driving to the hole often to finish with a team-high 18 points. No other St. Paul player scored more than five.

"He's been doing that all year," Swan said. "I think the difference in a game like this, or a game like we had with Kennedy earlier, is when we had pressure on the outside and it's hard to get him the ball."

Western Mennonite (14-3, 4-0 Tri-River Conference) had four players score in double figures, led by Alex Nicoli, who had 22.

The Pioneers dominated every phase of the game and presented problems for Swan's team at just about every turn. Western Mennonite not only scored easily in transition, but also drove to the hoop with ease in the half court and shot the ball well from beyond the three-point arc.

"They're long, athletic and we're just not at the level yet where we can respond to that," Swan said. "It's tough because we didn't play well. Western's great. I've never seen them shoot the ball that well and I've watched a lot of film on them, so it was kind of a perfect storm tonight."

St. Paul does not have long to process the loss, with a road contest at Crosshill Christian, one of the best 1A programs in the state, on tap Saturday. Still, Swan would certainly like to see a better and more consistent effort moving forward than what his team put forth Friday night.

"It was good to see where we are against the top team," Swan said. "We definitely know what we need to work on moving through the rest of the week."

The Bucks (11-5, 2-2) will face another road test Wednesday when the travel to No. 9 Santiam (11-6, 3-1) before closing the week out at East Linn Christian (6-10, 1-3) Friday.

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