St. Paul makes statement at 2A tournament
PENDLETON -- The St. Paul girls basketball team proved they could hang with the best teams in 2A, finishing their 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.
Only now is the squad ready to drop back down to 1A and bring a title to Buckaroo country.
"It was our last game together and our last game in 2A," senior Logan Robinson said. "We wanted to make a point that we can do it, that we're a great team and we're strong."
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 who have combined to win the past three state titles.
"The girls this morning were on cloud nine and didn't want the weekend to end," SPHS coach Dave Matlock said 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 Bucks. 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 three-pointer by Emma Connor. That deficit grew to 10-3 before the Bucks finally found their groove and went on a 14-0 run.
But just as the team was playing its best basketball, they were dealt a serious blow when sophomore 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 three-of-four 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.
"There were a lot of big minutes for people who weren't normally playing and they really just played amazing," sophomore post Isabelle Wyss said. "We were all so proud of each other and how we played out there."
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, 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.
"This is the best I've seen her play throughout her entire career and it culminated in that Faith Bible game where she had the game of her life," Matlock said. "She was just rock solid in all three games and it was exactly what we had hoped as coaches for her because we had seen this coming the second half of the season. I've never seen a girl blossom so much as I did the second half of a season with her and this tournament. In that game she was just amazing."
Wyss was selected to represent the Bucks on the all-tournament team, taking second-team honors after putting up 10.3 points, 7.0 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.
"We definitely lose some really good players, but from getting the playing time without Erin there and seeing how those girls played is definitely going to make us ready for next year," Wyss said. "We're going to really focus during the summer preparing ourselves for what will come next year. We're going down to 1A, but we still want to be a 2A team. We don't want to play any less and keep playing to our full potential. I think we're going to do very well next year."
Newberg Graphic reporter Seth Gordon contributed to this report