28-3 season one of the program's best
Sure, the St. Cloud Lady Bulldogs' landmark and memorable 28-3 season ended with a loss.
But it was in the state tournament in Lakeland, a hallowed place for most Class 8A programs; after all, St. Cloud had not been there since winning the Class 4A championship in 1994, long before any current Bulldogs were born.
In Friday's state semifinal, St. Thomas Aquinas' up-tempo pressing defense and early foul trouble to key starters spelled doom for St. Cloud, and it set the tone for the Raiders' 67-46 win.
Aquinas (22-7) fell to Tampa Bay Tech, 58-52 in overtime, in Saturday's championship.
Coach Chad Ansbaugh said the Bulldogs didn't play very well, and that Aquinas had to do with a lot of that.
"They don't run offensive sets, they just have great, instinctive players who run great inbound stuff," he said.
The Raiders press forced more turnovers than the Bulldogs made field goals early on. St. Cloud tried to keep pace with their familiar three-point shooting, but were just 9-for-31 shooting beyond the arc and couldn't dig out of deficits they got in when Aquinas went on 9-0 and 10-3 runs in the first half.
"We looked really good in practice last week shooting," Ansbaugh said. "In warmups we made everything; it's one thing to shoot on air, it's another with athletes running at you, and we didn't gobble up the second-chance points like they did."
Beka Benge and Bailey Ansbaugh hit three-pointers to give St. Cloud an early 6-4 lead, but from there it was all Aquinas. The Raiders used a size and rebounding advantage -- made worse when 6-2 center Eno Inyang went to the bench in the first quarter with her second, then third, foul -- and Bella LaChance and Samara Spencer's hit contested jump shots with a Bulldog hand in their face. Aquinas' "big", 6-1 Angelee Rodriguez, was a matchup nightmare with Inyang on the bench, scoring 10 of her 13 points in the first quarter.
"Eno is impossible to officiate. When she came off the court it just changed everyting inside," Ansbaugh said. "Then, who are you going to guard?"
Raiders' Coach Oliver Berens said his team came in with a game plan of "playing fast, up-tempo and an uncomfortable pace for them and a comfortable pace for us.
"The ball was finding different players and they were all ready to execute," he said. "We knew St. Cloud was going to give us a lot of problems. (Inyang) was a major emphasis in the post, and I think we did a good job."
The Bulldogs played better in the second half, but the hole was too big to dig out of.
Aquinas' offensive attack came from everywhere. Only five Raiders scored but all were in double digits; four of them got there in the third quarter.
"How about that for a game plan, hunh? We said, 'Let's keep them to three,'" Ansbaugh said wryly after the game, trying to keep a sense of humor about it.
Senior Jaden Langer, who scored all nine of her points on three-pointers, gave credit to St. Thomas Aquinas.
"They did everything. We're great shooters and the ball wasn't falling for us and every tough shot fell for them. And their pressure, their No. 35 (Abigail Hsu) is long and made it hell on their press. They are great basketball players and well-coached."
Benge, a junior and one of three returning starters, led the Bulldogs with 11 points. Inyang, a sophomore, finished with 10, with seven rebounds. Bailey Ansbaugh had that early three, and Angie Rodriguez (8), Kenzie Brantley (3) and Paige Alise (2) came off the bench to crack the score sheet.
The Bulldogs made this run based less on talent than hard work and closeness. No stranger to success, St. Cloud were a district runner-up the prior season, then Langer joined the fold from Osceola in the offseason. She took to the team, and vice versa.
"The run has been great because it's full of great people," Langer said.
Langer and Bailey Ansbaugh graduate from this team, along with defensive stopper Rakela Cummings and reserve guard Bailey Miller, but others return including starters Benge, Inyang and point guard Moriah Sanchez, who as a sophomore already has two varsity letters.
Juniors Brantley, Erin Maloney and Yazmin Padilla, sophomore Rodriguez and freshman Alise also return.