Maidens battle into consolation championship
KALISPELL — The basketball season came to an end for the Ronan Maidens, but not without an important victory.
Nobody was surprised that the Maidens weren’t in the Northwestern A Divisional title game on Saturday night. But that didn’t take anything away from the joy they felt earning a spot in the consolation championship. There was a small, but very important victory — just their second one this season — for Ronan on Saturday morning that may have made the season worthwhile. It certainly provided a glimmer of hope for a squad that has endured a lot of disappointment.
Ronan opened the tournament Thursday afternoon against Whitefish. Both teams looked a bit nervous, but both teams' defense worked very hard.
Maiden posts Alice Van Gunten and Jonna Grant battled down low in the paint with grit. By the time the first half was over, Van Gunten had hit three buckets. Unfortunately for Ronan, she was the only one with more than one score.
The Maidens scored just 15 first-half points, but their defensive efforts kept them in the game, trailing by just one (16-15) heading into the locker room. Unfortunately, Ronan’s jump-shooters didn’t find their range in the second half, either, as they hit just two jump-shots in the second half.
But Whitefish did find a shooter — guard Jessica Slaybaugh who hit five jumpers and four free throws to run up 15 points — and Whitefish pulled away for the 39-30 win.
Van Gunten led Ronan with 11 points, while guard Nina Orozco hit for six. Grant finished with four points, while Ashley Grandchamp hit a three-ball for her three points on the afternoon.
Both teams hit just 12 field goals, but Whitefish went 11-for-22 from the free throw line, while Ronan was just 5-for-10.
“We’ve just been struggling on offense all year. We just had trouble putting the ball in the basket,” Ronan head coach Doug Fisher explained. “One of our focal points was to keep the Slaybaugh girl from beating us ... but we lost track of her. And when you dig yourself into a hole like that, it’s hard to crawl back out of it.”
He said he tried to extend the 3-2 and 2-3 zones out onto Slaybaugh on the wings, but she did a good job of running the baseline. On Ronan’s offensive end, Whitefish packed it in and waited for the Maidens to shoot them out of it.
“They had a real good game plan ... and they knew that our game plan runs through Jonna (Grant) and Alice (Van Gunten). They sat back in the 2-3 and packed it in. With that zone packed in that didn’t leave us any seams to penetrate and kick ... they just executed their game plan.”
Fisher took a lot of positives out of the loss, including some leadership development of his young players.
“Ashley Grandchamp really stepped up. For a sophomore she showed some good leadership,” the coach noted. “Nina (Orozco) has been struggling and got into some foul trouble, but Ashley picked up the slack. We also got some good minutes out of Mariah (Cheff) and Courtney (Couture), which I felt was a huge factor in the second game we played with them. A lot of people would say we weren’t very successful, but I haven’t seen our girls play so hard for five years. The way they worked is everything a coach could ask for ... they really got after it. They are a scrappy bunch.”
They also got their chance at revenge early Saturday morning and took full advantage of the opportunity.
The Maidens faced Whitefish in loser-out play at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. And though both teams were a bit slow out of the gate offensively, Ronan’s defense gave them a big edge, holding Slaybaugh without a field goal.
“We decided to run a defense we haven’t run a lot,” Fisher explained. “Usually we use a 3-2 (zone) to protect against shooters on the wing, but we decided to extend it to half-court. We didn’t practice it, but set it up in my classroom on Friday. I was super-pleased that they came out and executed that the first time out.”
The Maidens trailed 12-13 at the half, but their defense shut down Whitefish in an 8-0 Ronan run in the third quarter to take a 20-13 lead into the fourth. Then, Ronan hit enough of its free throws down the stretch, 11 of 26, to secure the 37-24 win.
Van Gunten led Ronan with nine points, while Grant had eight and Orozco finished with seven. Taylor Lynch also chipped in five points, including a three-pointer in the third quarter.
A bit of early foul trouble forced some changes to the rotations, but Fisher said it turned out to be a good opportunities for his smaller, younger players to prove themselves under fire.
“With different lineups we were able to do different things,” Fisher said. “Early on we had to put our freshmen girls, I call them ‘our little quickies,’ in and I wasn’t sure if they could handle it. But we were only down by one at the half with the brunt of our leadership on the bench.”
After Orozco, Grant and Katie Andrews had to sit with two fouls apiece in the first half, the substitutions kept Ronan on a steady course. So, Fisher decided to stick with it.
“I would have come back with those three,” Fisher explained, “but I said ‘Hey, man, I’m not messin’ with what’s workin’.’ And they came into (Saturday’s) second game with a lot more confidence.”
Fisher used the freshmen as an example of some players who were working hard to get onto the floor.
“That really kind of jumpstarted our team leaders ... Jonna (Grant) and big Al (Van Gunten). I told them I’ve got some girls that are hungry, that don’t want to go home. And when they came out in the third they probably played their best basketball of the year, on both ends of the floor.”
Fisher said both of the players finished the game strong.
“Jonna stepped up and made some good decisions and broke out of a slump in a good way. And Alice is a beast ... she was tough,” Fisher explained. “We’ve really worked hard to get her to attack the basket more. She’s got a nice soft touch and handles the ball so well. We moved her in on the post with Jonna in foul trouble and she played the most aggressive I’ve seen her this year. Those are things we want her to do.”
Fisher said the win was a huge reward for his players, who have worked so hard all year.
“We absolutely showed more potential in that win than any game all year. That win is a huge building block going into the off-season,” the coach explained. “We’re starting to see the girls get comfortable in our system. It’s too bad we can’t extend the season some. They aren’t just running from point A to point B because that’s what the coach tells them. Now they are creating off of screens and getting more comfortable with what is expected. Again, they haven’t had a lot of continuity in the program and I take it as a big plus that they just attack the rim and not wonder if that’s what they are supposed to do.”
The win sent the Maidens into the consolation championship against the Libby Loggers. Though they battled and stayed close early — Grandchamp banked in a two-ball with 24 second remaining in the first quarter to keep Ronan within three (7-10) — Jackie Mee soon took over the game for Libby.
And as Mee put up 25 points, the Maidens finally ran out of gas as the Loggers pulled away for the 51-31 win.
Grant finished strong with 15 hard-fought points, but Ronan’s legs were spent. The Maidens shot just 24 percent from the floor and committed 23 turnovers to Libby’s 12.
“You could tell we were tired. The Whitefish game was very emotional. I hoped we could pick it up, but we came out flat and had a couple of turnovers. It took us a while to get going ... and you can’t do that against a team like Libby. With Jackie Mee, that creates a big problem,” Fisher explained.
Ronan tried to box-and-one her, but Mee knew to taker her smaller defender right to the basket, either scoring or drawing the foul.
“We tried to give help (from the weak side), but Jackie’s just great down low. She was either scoring or dropping it off. Then she steps out and hits a couple 25 footers. I turned and asked (assistant coach) Clayton (Curley) if he had an answer for that and he said ‘Nope.’”
It was a long and trying year for the Maidens, but Fisher emphasized it was a positive year of learning and development.