Peoria girls basketball coach Leslie Saulsby didn’t want to play scrooge this season and make his squad come in for practice during Christmas break.
Instead, he let his team enjoy their remaining days of winter break away from the basketball court and hoped the decision wouldn’t backfire this week.
”I wanted the girls to be with their families over Christmas,” Saulsby said. “But the coach in me said maybe we should have called some practices.”
After taking third in the Flowing Wells Holiday Shootout Dec. 28-29, the Panthers (13-3, 5-0) had a seven-day lay off before downing Copper Canyon 56-35 in West Valley region match up tonight.
Saulsby said his squad came out a little “off” to start and struggled to control the tempo throughout the first half. The Aztecs aggressiveness on defense also played a part in Peoria’s sluggish start.
“Copper Canyon, to their credit, played well and I think we were on our heels to start,” Saulsby said. “Now we have another seven days between games, but we’ll be out practicing everyday but Sunday.”
Those seven days will be spent preparing for a tough week. The Panthers will face 4A-I top dog Shadow Mountain, an improved Dysart team followed by Kellis during a 4-day stretch.
And another slow start like tonight could mean trouble for the defending 4A-I West Valley Region champions.
Copper Canyon struck quick when Avery Saldano hit a layup off the opening tip. Peoria tried to answer but turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions. While the Panthers waited to find its offense, their defense inside the key kept the Aztecs off balance.
”Playing good ‘D’ is always the key,” Saulsby said. “If we play good defense that always gives us a chance offensively. That’s how we’ve always done it at Peoria. We use that word ubiquitous – if we play ubiquitous and are fearsome on defense we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Peoria broke its scoring drought at the 4:50 mark of the first quarter when Maura Matchers laid in a pass from Andrea DeMondo. Copper Canyon answered on a fast break off the Panther basket, as Felicia Foster caught the Peoria defense in transition, streaked down the court and laid in an easy two.
That’s as much offense as the Aztecs would muster in the first as the Panthers went on a 9-3 run, keyed by Matchers who scored six during the streak and capped on her lay up thanks to Andrea Ramirez’s dribble drive that drew a double team into the lane.
Peoria built a 7-point lead midway through the second quarter, 20-13, on Lindsey Huth’s foul shot, but the Aztecs rebounded late to close to within three at the half, 22-19.
Copper Canyon eventually tied the game at 24 on a short jumper out of the post by Janell Collins. From there Peoria turned on its shooting, going on a 15-2 run to close out the third. In the second half, the Panthers outscored the Aztecs 34-16 in the second half.
Matchers led all scorers with 20 points, but her night went beyond the scorebook, Saulsby said. With point guard Raven Boone forced to sit much of the first half, Peoria had to juggle its lineup with Matchers moving to the point. Saulsby said it’s a credit to Matchers and the team’s depth that the switch worked as well as it did.
”Losing (Boone to foul trouble) meant we had to shift everyone around and I think it affected our defense early, too,” Saulsby said. “Her and Matchers are one and two on the team in steals, so without her we lose a little of that. I could have put her back in there, but those kind of things are going to happen and I wanted to see how our girls handled it.”
Sualsby went nine deep against Copper Canyon, and was pleased with the contributions. The bench was something he acknowledged as a contributing factor to Peoria’s No. 5 position in the latest power rankings. Also, he said the team chemistry has led to the Panthers’ hot start in the standing and has made his job easier this year.
”This has been one my favorite team’s to coach since I’ve been here,” Saulsby said. “They’re a fun team to coach, they listen and believe in the coaching staff. They work hard and top to bottom I’d say it’s the best team I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Sualsby then looked up to the rafters where the girls basketball banner rested listing their region championships and pointed: “I’d like to add a third one (region championship) there, too. That would be nice.”