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Lion girls sweep back-to-back games to capture team title in St. Helens event

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JIM BESEDA - The play of St. Helens junior Maddie Holm helped lead the Lions to a 2-0 record in last weeks one-day tournament.The St. Helens girls basketball team has a championship to its name.

It was just a one-day tournament in the Lions' gym, and the spoils came in the form of a plaque instead of a huge trophy.

But a title is still a title, and the Lions earned it by winning both their games in the four-team competition.

Waking up early for a Saturday and early for a basketball game, the Lions opened the four-game event with a 50-32 win over Gresham.

After McKay topped Aloha, 40-28, the Lions beat McKay 37-25 for the gold medal, er, tournament plaque.

"It's a huge confidence booster for our team," St. Helens forward Maddie Holm said, "especially because we're not really known for being a great girls basketball program."

The return of Holm after a standout sophomore season, and the improving cast of players around her, had the Lions at 5-1 and ranked 17th in Class 5A (through Wednesday) by the Oregon School Activities Association after their two tournament victories.

Last season, the Lions were 2-4 after six games, and they went on to finish 9-16 overall and were ranked 26th in the state at their level

"We're really moving up," senior point guard Emelia Paullus said.

The Lions still had a tough trip to Pendleton facing them (that game was Thursday night), and then a return engagement with McKay in the St. Helens gym on Dec. 27, and two more nonleague games before a very tough Northwest Oregon Conference opener at home against Wilsonville on Jan. 8.

"We're playing good ball, but we've got to keep getting better," cautioned coach Michael Fendall, in his first year running the Lions varsity.

Still, pats on the back after the Gresham and McKay games were well-deserved.

"We had to wake up super early, so it was kind of rough," senior forward Kaela Lee said.

The Lions got off to a sluggish start versus Gresham, but played especially well in the middle quarters of that game and in the first half against McKay.

"As the day progressed, we started getting better and better," Lee said.

Holm seemed particularly energized for the title game, which started at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Her overall floor play — eight points, five rebounds, two blocks and one steal — shot St. Helens to a 14-6 lead after the first quarter, despite eight turnovers.

At halftime, the Lions were enjoying a 24-10 lead over the Royal Scots, and Holm had 17 points and 12 rebounds.

"We were pretty pumped up for that game. We wanted to win the tournament," Holm said.

It might have helped that Holm was able to rest for about a full quarter as the Lions closed out Gresham.

The second half against McKay wasn't as productive, although St. Helens never was in danger of losing. The Lions struggled mightily on offense in the third quarter — going 0 of 9 from the field, with their only three points registered by Holm free throws.

"We were trying to rush it to get some more points, even though we had a lead," Lee said. "We could have slowed down a little bit."

The fourth quarter started in shaky fashion, too. The Lions had five turnovers and were 0 of 2 from the field, and their lead was 27-21, when Lee nailed back-to-back 3-pointers.

Both shots came on feeds from Paullus and from about the same spot near the right corner.

"Those 3's from Kaela were crucial," Fendall said. "They were super clutch.

"When you miss that many shots in a row — and many of them were open looks — it gets to your psyche a little bit."

Also, the Lions had some trouble when McKay began to press in the second half.

"Their pressure frazzled us for a moment, but we got through it," Fendall said, "and I'm proud of them for it. It was kind of one of those ugly games, but sometimes it's like that.

"Thankfully we played really good defense, and they (the Royal Scots) also were kind of struggling."

Holm finished with four of her team's six blocks and three of the Lions' nine steals — along with 20 points and 20 rebounds.

The only other St. Helens players to score were Lee with 11 points and Paullus with six.

"I don't like that," Fendall said. "We'll take a win, but having only three players score is not going to work against better teams.

"We just struggled to make shots. We got a lot of open ones. Granted, a lot of them were 3's (the Lions were 4 of 22 from beyond the arc), and those are difficult shots to hit. But that's kind of what hoop is — you've got to make open shots."

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