Girls basketball: St. Paul girls look to ride defense to state tournament bid
In the past two seasons, there has been no better defensive team in the Tri-River Conference than the St. Paul Buckaroos.
But despite the oft-said adage that defense wins championships, St. Paul has yet to qualify for the state playoffs, let alone sniff the quarterfinal tournament. That's no shot at the Buckaroos, have been among the top teams in the state in the past two years, but rather an indicator of just how good the Tri-River is every year.
"It's so tough to win every night in the Tri-River," St. Paul head coach Dave Matlock said. "A lot of times it's not something the kids did wrong or (are) not executing, it's just something that happens when you're up against a tough league with great competition every night."
Last year was no different. The Tri-River Conference qualified four teams to the eight-team tournament in Pendleton, and they all finished with a trophy at the end of the season. St. Paul likely could have held its own against that competition, but was simply unable to break through the barrier, finishing fifth in league.
"We were just the odd man out," Matlock said. "We were equally as good as those teams almost, just the odd man out. How many times do you see four league teams going to the state tournament?"
This year, the Bucks are once again determined to prove they belong among the elite 2A programs in the state and thus far through five games, are proving they have the defense to get them there.
St. Paul (5-0) is coming off a pair of decisive victories in the Wildcat Challenge, an annual tournament hosted by Southwest Christian High School. The Bucks had little challenge in dispatching New Hope Christian and Southwest Christian, winning by margins of 52-7 and 55-18, respectively.
While the competition at the Wildcat Challenge may not up to par with what the Bucks will see on a nightly basis in the Tri-River, the wins were a continuation of a hot start in which St. Paul has held opponents to an average of 20 points a game.
"I'm really happy with our defense," Matlock said. "We really lock teams down with our defense this year and it just gives us a much better chance to being in a game and win a game."
Under Matlock's guidance, the Bucks have hung their hat on their defensive ability and have made a name for themselves in the conference by slowing down the game and being one of the toughest teams to score against on a night-to-night basis. This year's no different.
"We've been the leader in giving up the fewest points in the Tri-River when factoring in all 24 games in the past two years, and that was a goal of the team this year, to continue that and be the best defensive team in the Tri-River," Matlock said.
If any criticism can be leveled against the Buckaroos, it's that they've been unable to score at the same clip as the other teams in the Tri-River. That's where this year's team is different from the previous season.
Last year's St. Paul team eclipsed 50 points just three times in 24 outings. The Bucks have already matched that through their first five games of the 2017-18 season. Matlock credits that to natural maturation of his players as they become more comfortable with the offensive system.
"Offensively this year, we're more efficient and shooting the ball better," Matlock said. "I think that's just the growth and maturity of working hard through summer ball and skill drills. The kids have done a lot of work to get better offensively."
Another factor has been the conversion of all-conference post Erin Counts to the perimeter where she can initiate the offense. The move has trickledown effect on the team that allows the Bucks to take advantage of their players' individual strengths.
"She is very gifted with handling the ball and she has great court vision and handling on her passes," Matlock said. "I want to play her a lot at guard this year because she has that ability to make everyone around her better."
With Counts handling the ball, that allows junior guard Emma Connor to crash the boards more, taking advantage of her natural instincts around the basket.
"Emma has incredible instinct for the ball and when the ball goes up, she's around the ball every time," Matlock said.
It also frees up more space for sophomore post Isabelle Wyss to work more near the basket without the rest of the team clogging the paint.
"When Erin draws attention and is able to create shots for people, Isabelle has that space in the middle to get open and Emma is feeding off of that," Matlock said.
Along with the entire roster working cohesively as a unit, the Bucks are enjoying the great start to the season, but always seeking to improve on a nightly basis. With the upcoming league opener against the Kennedy Trojans on the horizon, as well as the defending champion Monroe Dragons and the Lost River Raiders later in the month, St. Paul will be faced with significant tests to see just how much they belong in the conversation among the top 2A teams in the state.
"These are games that are a real barometer for us to see if we're the caliber of those final eight teams that we want to get to in Pendleton," Matlock said. "This is our last shot at 2A, so there's really an urgency about our desire to go out there and do that. We know we're right there in the mix and we want to prove it, not only to ourselves, but the entire state, that we're for real and we can be one of those teams."