PREP FOCUS: Slump over, and St. Mary's serves notice
For the St. Mary's Academy Blues, winning the Nike Interstate Shootout Swoosh championship for the first time was an impressive accomplishment.
For seventh-year coach Art Rojas and his Blues, ranked No. 2 at the OSAA Class 6A level, the 45-34 finals victory over Beaverton on Monday night at Lake Oswego also represented a turning point.
A four-game losing streak is all but forgotten, and the Blues (7-4) have proved that they're worthy of being regarded as one of the top contenders for the 2014 girls basketball state championship.
"I'm very proud of these kids for responding so well after having little slump before the tournament," Rojas says. "We had a strong performance here and really showed how well we're capable of playing.
"It's always very tough playing four games in four days, but the kids did a good job. They all played their hearts out, and everyone played tough defense. "
The Blues were seeking revenge for a 66-38 home loss Dec. 18 to Beaverton, now 7-3 and ranked No. 8 in the OSAA RPI.
And that's exactly what they got.
Led by the remarkable all-around performance of 5-10 freshman guard Bendu Yeaney (12 points), junior guard Tasia Bilbrew (11 points), junior post Tyschal Blake (10 points) and junior guard Martina McCowan (seven points), the Blues were a different team on Monday, and over the weekend at LO.
"We played very well, we played hard every game and we redeemed ourselves by winning the tournament title with a victory over Beaverton," says McCowan, a lightning-quick 5-9 player who often leads the Blues in assists and steals. "I think we deserve to be highly ranked.
"Our ultimate goal is to win the state championship. We have an experienced team that plays very well together, and I really think we're capable of going all the way this year."
The Blues had a nine-point advantage after the first quarter and maintained control of the game from start to finish. Beaverton never got closer than its six-point halftime deficit.
It was the Blues' fourth straight victory.
"My role is to help encourage my teammates and help them maintain a positive attitude," says McCowan, who led the Blues in scoring with 41 points in the tournament. "I like to pass the ball as often as I can to my teammates when they're in scoring position, because I know they're all capable of scoring."
St. Mary's, who lost four in a row from Dec. 13-20, regained the swagger of a championship caliber team with victories in the 22nd annual tourney over Corvallis, Clackamas, Skyview of Vancouver, Wash., and the Metro League Beavers.
"We were happy to get a win against a very good Beaverton team," says Rojas, who has guided St. Mary's to the Nike Shootout semifinals in three of the last four years. "You always want to see somebody again after they beat you once, and this gave us a chance to redeem ourselves.
"I think we're talented enough to beat any team. We just have to learn to eliminate our mistakes and play with the will to win."
On Sunday, the Blues avenged another earlier loss with their 56-54 semifinals win against Skyview. The Storm had nipped them 48-44 on Dec. 15.
Yeaney drove to the basket and sank the game-winning shot in Sunday's rematch.
Yeaney, the Blues' only freshman, had a four-game total of 40 points and was one of the team's leading rebounders.
McCowan, Yeaney and Bilbrew lead a solid attack. The Blues average 50.1 points per game, seventh among 6A squads. SMA has given up 47.7 points per game.
CeCe Wooten, the Blues' 6-foot senior post, contributed six points against Skyview and totaled 27 points in the tourney, while helping lead St. Mary's to the victories over Clackamas (9-2) and Corvallis (5-1).
St. Mary's opened the 16-team, four-day event with a 53-42 win over Corvallis on Friday, then beat Clackamas 41-34.
On Monday night, Wooten, McCowan and Yeaney were selected to the Nike Shootout all-tournament team.
"It's a thrill to win the title, but more importantly, I think this has helped build our confidence level up higher," says Wooten, the only senior on a Blues roster that also includes five juniors and four sophomores (Kate Patterson, Sydni Dalton, Clara Ell and Katia Mrdjan).
"We're really coming together as a team, and the success we had in the tournament has helped us get back on our feet after our earlier slump. We're ready to head into the Mt. Hood Conference season now, while playing with a high-energy level and lots of momentum."
Wooten, who lives in Vancouver, transferred to St. Mary's a year ago after attending Hudson Bay High for two years.
"I definitely feel that one of my jobs is being a team leader," Wooten says. "That's easy to do with these girls, because they're all very talented. We all love each other so much, and that's what I really enjoy most about being on this team."
The Blues were runners-up to the 2013 state champion Rams in the MHC last season. St. Mary's advanced to the state quarterfinals and is looking to make state for a fourth consecutive year.
With their recent success, the Blues should be considered a top contender for the conference title. The Blues will open their 12-game MHC schedule when play their next game Jan. 7 at the Central Catholic Rams (2-6).
Then comes a Jan. 10 home game versus non-league Jesuit (6-3).
"I think we have a great opportunity to win the league this year if we just come to play and avoid distractions and play together well as a team," Rojas says. "Every team we've played was a very solid squad, and that's helped prepare us well for league.
"We're real excited about the upcoming games. I guess you could call it 'Holy Week' because we play Central Catholic and Jesuit in our next two games. Our kids love it when we play those two teams. It's a great rivalry with Central, and it won't take much to get the girls motivated to play that game, and it will be lots of fun."