December 21, 2013 7:25:43 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes a slow and steady pace is the best option.
On other occasions, a team is going to be hard-pressed to stick to the style it wants to play.
The Starkville High School girls basketball team discovered both sides of that coin in its two games at the 17th annual Joe Horne Columbus Christmas Classic.
On Friday, Starkville fell behind but continued to attack and rallied for a 64-59 victory against Carver (Ala.) High.
On Saturday, Ridgeway (Tenn.) High showed why it is one of the top teams in Region 15 AAA with a 65-46 victory against Starkville.
Starkville coach Kristie Williams took the games as a valuable learning experience, especially Saturday's affair in which the Roadrunners (11-0) turned up the pressure and trapped the Yellow Jackets (7-3) on the wings and anywhere they could in an effort to push the tempo.
"It was just a big test for us," Williams said. "Ridgeway is one of the top teams out of Memphis, and they brought the fire from start to finish. At one point, we started to hang our heads and say, 'Whoa is me.' We told them we had to keep fighting and we don't stop playing because a team is making a run on us and we don't make the shots that we usually make. We just got outhustled."
Ridgeway used a 10-1 run to close the second quarter and take a 30-18 halftime lead. The Roadrunners scored two of the five baskets thanks to steals and layups and another off a turnover. With guards Alexus Bryson, Brandi Beasley, and Breounna Humphrey and wing player Ashley Jackson on the perimeter harassing point guard Blair Schaefer, Ridgeway prevented Starkville from establishing a rhythm like it did Friday when it worked the ball in the half-court set and attacked the basket at will. The attacking mind-set allowed the Yellow Jackets to overcome a cold shooting afternoon. Schaefer was 26 of 30 from the free throw line for a game-high 30 points, while senior wing player Imane Montgomery added 18 points.
On Saturday, though, Ridgeway's size and defense on the perimeter denied Starkville those chances. The post play of E'ryn Foster, Kendra Boone, and Tierney Paylor to win the battle on the offensive boards and shut down driving lanes.
A shot in the lane by Eryka Williams helped Starkville cut the deficit to 44-31 with 1 minute, 31 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Yellow Jackets didn't get any closer.
"They were learning as they were playing today," Williams said. "We called timeouts and told them to calm down and to take a deep breath. We told them to make the easier pass and don't try to make the home run pass just because two people are coming at you. We practice against double teams every day in our practices, and it was no different than what we saw. Sometimes we got rattled. We just tried to show them make the easier passes and everything will start to get better. It was a learning process throughout for our girls against a team like Ridgeway.
Jackson, Ridgeway's only senior, had a team-high 22 points, while Beasley added 17 and Foster had 13.
Schaefer paced Starkville with 14 points, while Montgomery had 12 and freshman Kelsey Jones had six.
"Sometimes we tend to be a little frantic whenever we see two people come at us," Schaefer said. "We work on that stuff in practice all of the time. We just have to get it in our minds to where it is just another team and pretend like it is us on us and don't look at it like, 'Oh my God, we don't know these people,' so we need to panic. We work on ballhandling every day. It is just a day-to-day process, and we get better every day."
Schaefer, who has signed to play with her father, Vic, at Mississippi State next season, has been Starkville's primary ballhandler for the past season and a half. Williams said the Yellow Jackets are working to try to find another guard who can step in and give her the flexibility to move Schaefer and Montgomery to the wings.
Until that happens, Schaefer and Montgomery will continue to develop their chemistry. Schaefer's ballhandling allows her to go right or to the left to draw defenses to her. Once that happens, she has a knack for finding Montgomery on the wings or behind the 3-point arc. Starkville's struggles from the perimeter Friday prevented that from working against Carver, but the Yellow Jackets made up for it with a solid effort from the free throw line. After trailing by as many as 10 points twice in the third quarter, Starkville used two free throws by Schaefer to take a 51-50 lead with 4:00 to go. Montgomery then hit back-to-back jumpers to kick the lead to five. A twisting layup by Schaefer with 1:26 to go helped push the lead to 61-57 with 1:26 to go before the Yellow Jackets closed the game on the foul line. Their aggressiveness in attacking the rim forced five Carver players to foul out. Carver was whistled for 39 fouls, while Starkville was called for 18.
Montgomery feels the Yellow Jackets learned they have to find a way to play at the same pace and keep playing through the ups and downs of a game. She doesn't feel that will be a big challenge even though she felt Ridgeway was the first team to play that kind of defense against Starkville.
"I think we were too quick at times," Montgomery said. "I think we hurt ourselves, but we stayed up there a little bit."
If Starkville learns how not to play so fast and to take better care of the basketball, she feels she and Schaefer can continue to work well together. She feels her game has matured as she and Schaefer have learned how to communicate.
Schaefer, who was 2 of 19 from the field, said her father encourages her to get to the rim whenever her outside game isn't clicking. She said the 30 free throw attempts are the most she can remember taking in a game.
The trick for Starkville is to find a way to play at its tempo and to get more players into the mix so defenses won't be able to focus on Schaefer and Montgomery and dictate the pace of games.
"The test was we challenged them to keep fighting, and they did," Williams said. "We could have easily hung our head and bowed down, but we gave them a good fight. I am glad to see we do have fight in us when we do play a tough team like Ridgeway."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.