Girls basketball: St. Paul leaves its mark on 2A
The St. Paul girls basketball team proved it could hang with the best teams in 2A, finishing its final season in the classification Saturday with a 47-36 win over the Faith Bible Falcons to claim third place in the 2018 state tournament in Pendleton.
Only now is the squad ready to drop back down to 1A and bring a title to Buckaroo country.
"They're really hungry now and they have their confidence," head coach Dave Matlock said. "That's what's driven them this year."
The victory concluded the program's best season since bumping up to the 2A level four years ago, matching the team's third-place finish from 2014 — the last year St. Paul was a 1A program.
The Bucks had fallen just shy of making the playoffs in the past two seasons, but the team left no doubt that they had a tournament-caliber program this year, storming into the playoffs as one of the top-ranked teams in the state and advancing to the quarterfinals with a 38-point victory over Bonanza in the first round.
But this team wasn't content just to be there, rallying from a poor start in the first quarter of their quarterfinal match against the Oakland Oakers to win 39-36 and advance to the state semifinals.
After being shorthanded in a 57-45 loss to the defending state champion Monroe Dragons, the Bucks rallied on the final day of the tournament to beat Faith Bible, finishing as the third-best team in the state behind the Dragons and the Kennedy Trojans — the two teams that have combined to win the last three state titles.
"The girls this morning were on cloud nine and didn't want the weekend to end," Matlock said on Sunday. "It did nothing more than confirm what they knew about themselves. They enjoyed this experience so much and it felt like it validated all their hard work."
Not that the tournament came easily to the Buckaroos. The team's opening game on Thursday against the Oakers couldn't have started much worse, going 0-for-4 from the floor with four turnovers to fall behind 6-0 before making their first shot on a 3-pointer by Emma Connor. That deficit grew to 10-3 before the Bucks finally found their groove and went on a 14-0 run.
"The very first few possessions were total jitters," Matlock said. "Then they kind of started to relax and focus more on themselves. They understand the moment, and once they got a hoop under their belt they could focus on one play at a time."
But just as the team was playing its best basketball, they were dealt a serious blow when sophomore First Team All-League guard Erin Counts went down in the third quarter with an ankle injury. That gave Oakland the opening they needed to storm back, scoring six straight points to tie the game at 29-29 early in the fourth.
Counts eventually came back, sinking 3-of-4 free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the victory, but she was unable to play in the team's semifinal game against the Dragons on Friday.
With the team's most versatile player sidelined for the most important game of the season, Matlock leaned on little-used sophomore Diana Hernandez to fill Counts' spot in the lineup, and turned to junior Rachel Vela to soak up minutes from the bench.
"I thought they did really well to step up with Erin not being there," Matlock said. "I was amazed with our bench putting up the kind of production they did."
Even without Counts, St. Paul challenged the Dragons like few other teams this season. Every Monroe run was met in kind by the Bucks, who trailed by just 44-40 with less than five minutes remaining in regulation.
But Monroe went on one final scoring binge, uncorking a 13-5 run over the rest of the quarter to pull away and force St. Paul into the third-place game.
It was there that the Bucks' lone senior starter — Logan Robinson — put the team on her shoulders and carried them to victory. Robinson scored a career-high 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds, three steals and a pair of assists. Counts was able to return for the final game, but the spotlight belonged to Robinson, who capped her basketball career at St. Paul in the most exciting way possible.
"The second half of the season, it seemed like she turned a page in her mind," Matlock said, noting that she took a much more proactive role with the team, embracing her leadership responsibilities as a senior.
"It's funny, you'd think it would apply more pressure to her, but it seemed to clarify in her brain what she needed to do," Matlock continued. "We're going to sorely miss Logan, because she does so much dirty work of taking the toughest kids on the team. Now we're going to have to find someone to replace her."
Sophomore post Isabelle Wyss was selected to represent the Bucks on the All-Tournament team, taking second-team honors after putting up 10 points, seven rebounds and nearly two steals a game over the weekend.
Matlock, however, was hard-pressed to figure out who was the team's best player in what was a truly collaborative effort in Pendleton.
Robinson led the team with more than 14 points per game on nearly 60 percent shooting, while also adding three steals a game. Connor was the team's leading rebounder, including a 13-point, 13-rebound performance in the win against Oakland. And then there was Counts, who weathered the ankle injury to post nine points, 11 rebounds, a block and a steal against Faith Bible.
With just Robinson and fellow senior Dessa Coleman set to graduate from the program this year, the Bucks feel more than ready to carry the momentum back to 1A next season.
"They're feeling greedy now," Matlock said. "We have so many kids back who are seasoned and know what it takes. They're that kind of team in terms of their mindset. I love coaching them because of that, because they're so easy to motivate."