Finding enough minutes for all its players may be a tough task for Peoria coach Leslie Saulsby.
But having that kind of depth on his girls basketball squad is nice problem to have, he said.
“We have three freshman who see at least 20 minutes a game, and two who usually start,” Saulsby said. “We’re better starting young and going to our experience, than starting with our experience and going young.”
Using a mixture of veterans and underclassmen, the Panthers led from start to finish in a 67-59 win against rival Raymond S. Kellis Tuesday.
It was a nice change of pace for a Peoria squad that scored less than 50 in three of its first five games. But struggling in December is nothing new to the Panthers who have hit their stride after ringing in the New Year, Saulsby said.
The slow Decembers are a byproduct of on court chemistry in that players are still learning their roles, a point Saulsby expects this season with so many freshman and sophomores on the squad.
“Chemistry off the court is fantastic,” said the Panther coach. “But on the floor chemistry with so much youth – they’re learning. It will come around. We’ve always been that team you don’t want to face in January, but I’d rather not wait until January.”
One former starter turned role player is senior Erin Mack, who Saulsby said has taken to her new role. The Panther forward finished with a double-double Tuesday – 13 points, 11 rebounds – as she filled in for freshman Taylor Blue who was fighting an illness.
“Mack has been coming off the bench, but not because she did anything wrong,” Saulsby said. “(Blue) typically starts because she gives us a few more options on the back end. For a senior to go from starting to not starting and let a freshman start ahead of you and then come back to be a beast tonight, for me, I can’t speak any better of her.”
After taking a 10-2 lead to start the game, Kellis fought back with a 12-4 run capped by senior Jackie Hernandez’s open layup with 42 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The Cougars had a chance to take the lead, but a foul by senior Mary Driscol kept the ball in Peoria’s zone. Senior Lindsey Huth missed both free throws but senior Raven Boone grabbed the rebound and found Mack underneath for a short jumper that gave the Panthers the lead.
Boone then stole a pass at half court, but missed the lay up. However, Mack was there for the offensive rebound, getting fouled in the process. She hit the front-end of a one-and-one to give Peoria a three-point cushion heading into the second quarter.
Boone’s quickness nabbed her a pair of steals on consecutive possessions in the second quarter, feeding Huth on one drive to give the Panthers a seven-point lead, 21-14, with four minutes in the half. They would push the deficit to 10 points at the half.
Peoria led by as much as 14 midway through the fourth quarter when Huth hit a jumper in the paint to go up 57-43 with 5 minutes remaining.
However, Kellis nearly came back during the final 4 minutes when Peoria found itself in foul trouble. Mack put the Cougars in the double bonus and sophomore Savannah Lee hit both free throws to cut the lead to seven.
Huth helped get the points back as she drove the lane, drawing a double team, then finding Camacho open on the wing for a jumper, making it a 59-50 game.
Kellis junior Keera Bailey’s jumper and senior Brooke Alonzo’s free throw made it a six-point lead with 2:27 remaining.
“Those final minutes were freshman mistakes,” Saulsby said. “Our leaders stepped in and told them ‘stop doing this.’ We called that last timeout and the leaders stepped up and told (the freshman) stop fouling, understand what we need to have happen and that’s kind of stuff that will make us better.”
Peoria reclaimed its momentum following the timeout and pushed its lead back to 12 with Pearl’s lay up with 43 seconds left in the game.
“Offensively we were great, but I wasn’t happy with our defense,” Saulsby said. “We were up, but we didn’t sustain our energy on defense from every possession. In other games it’s been opposite where we’ve shut teams down but couldn’t score. When we get it together it will be nice.”
While the Panthers may have led wire to wire against the Cougars, Saulsby said anything could have happened between these two rivals.
“We could be 20 billions times better or vice versa, that’s a rivalry game and I expect Kellis to come with everything against us,” Saulsby said. “They are young, decent and well coached. We knew they were going to make some shots, and we gave them some open looks and they made them.”