Girls basketball: No. 6 Bucks are in elite eight for the first time as a 2A team
Having just missed out each of the past two seasons, simply making the state playoffs has been a long time coming for the St. Paul girls basketball team.
The No. 6 Buckaroos were more than ready for the big stage when it came around Friday night, demolishing No. 11 Bonanza 66-28 to advance to the state tournament this week in Pendleton.
"One of the things they've matured so much in is that they don't get intimidated by the moment," head coach Dave Matlock said. "They tend to want to challenge the moment, whatever it is, and this was obviously the biggest game in a long time for them. Yet they didn't seem to get rattled at all."
Sophomore Isabelle Wyss sparked St. Paul in the early going, scoring eight consecutive points to give the home side a 12-4 lead with 3:33 left to play in the opening quarter.
"It kind of got everybody else relaxed, so she was a real catalyst, I thought," Matlock said. "They didn't defend her real well early, then they figured out they had to stop her and started to crash and double her."
The Bucks went scoreless the rest of the first quarter, but the defense made the lead stand up until the offense got going again in the second frame.
St. Paul led 16-8 with 5:26 to go before uncorking a 9-1 run over the next two minutes to open the game up and took a 29-11 lead into the break.
"I told the girls that on tape they tired in the second and fourth quarters in the games that I'd seen," Matlock said. "I knew our running could pay dividends if we stayed with it, and those were the quarters that really hurt them. That's the key for us. If we get on the break, everything else seems to fall in place, and it did."
St. Paul was aggressive coming out of the half, as well, opening the third on a 17-4 run to push its lead to 31 points, but the Antlers scored seven straight to close out the quarter and make it 46-22.
Bonanza never threatened again, as the Bucks never took their foot off the gas, scoring 20 points in the fourth to secure a win in their first playoff appearance since moving up to 2A four years ago.
"It feels so good, especially with this group of girls," senior Logan Robinson said. "It's so amazing to have this experience and to finally get to go to Pendleton. It's been a few years getting there."
Wyss led the team with 16 points, but the scoring was quite balanced, as fellow sophomore Erin Counts added 15, Robinson had 14 and Megan Tuck added 11.
"They stayed with it and it took a little while to get all the offense going, but they don't panic," Matlock said. "The biggest thing is how they're embracing moments like this, whereas before it would have been more intimidating to them. That's huge because they didn't seem like they had any fear tonight and I love that about this group."
The Bucks (22-5) have now won 15 of the their past 17 games, with both losses coming to No. 1 Kennedy, and will now face No. 3 Oakland (26-2), winners of the Mountain View Conference district tournament, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Pendleton High School.
The Oakers have been one of the best teams in the state this season, with both their losses coming by single digits against the defending state champion Monroe Dragons. But Oakland defeated Monroe in the MVC tournament to earn the league's top seed and advanced to the quarterfinals behind a 34-23 win over the Enterprise Outlaws on Friday.
Like St. Paul, the Oakers have succeeded this season behind the strength of their defense, leading all 2A schools with just 27.07 points allowed this year.
"They're talented at every position and they're big enough to give you fits on the boards, so they're a high quality team," Matlock said. "We're going to have to play our A game to beat that team. If we bring a similar effort to what we did tonight in running and defense, I think we can beat them. These girls really believe that they can, too. We're going to believe until they prove it otherwise. That's a good mentality to have."