PUEBLO - Less than a month ago, 38 points was just good enough for the St. Mary’s girls’ basketball team to prevent a 20-point loss to Colorado Springs Christian School.
Saturday, in the Tri Peaks district championship, 38 was more than enough to hand the top-seeded Lions (21-1) their first loss of the year, 40-34, in the second meeting of last year’s Class 3A finalists.
At the core of the turnaround was a defensive scheme prepared by Pirates (21-1) assistant coach Kyle Burkett.
“I had a brilliant plan the first game, and it didn’t work so well,” St. Mary’s coach Mike Burkett joked. “Kyle, my son, came up with a great plan the second game, and it worked really well.”
The plan produced 13 CSCS turnovers and a shortage of easy buckets for the Lions’ top two scorers: Megan Engesser and Rachel Ingram.
“I think at least eight of those (turnovers) led to layups for them,” CSCS coach Mark Engesser said. “Maybe 10 even.”
The Pirates’ coach called a third meeting, presumably for a state championship, likely, but he didn’t want to keep the defensive tweak in his pocket.
“This one gets you a higher seed in the state tournament,” Burkett said. “You want to make things as easy as you possibly can for yourself.”
Offense didn’t come easily for either side.
St. Mary’s sophomore Josephine Howery and CSCS freshman Elleah Hoekert traded 3-pointers to see the teams tied at eight with two minutes left in the first quarter. Engesser’s 10 first-half points staked the Lions to an 18-17 lead at the break.
The CSCS advantage grew to six midway through the third, but the Pirates again pulled within one after Howery scored off a turnover in the final minute of the third quarter.
“So many people stepped up in that defensive effort,” the junior said. “We’ve been going over that all week.”
Brooklyn Valdez hit a 3-pointer to open the fourth-quarter scoring, and CSCS never lead again.
Catherine Cummings gave the Pirates a four-point lead with three minutes to play, and St. Mary’s limited CSCS to one last Engesser bucket the rest of the way.
Howery, who finished with a team-best 17 points, gave the Pirates 38 points with a pair of free throws with 17.6 remaining. She added two more from the stripe with less than 5 seconds left to seal the victory, similar to what she did in last year’s state championship.
“This young lady stepped up and hit four in a row against CSCS and sealed the game,” Burkett said of last year’s 44-38 title win. “And that’s exactly what she did tonight.”
As big as Saturday’s win was - and the Pirates celebration after Mackenzie Pepper grabbed the league trophy made it seem significant - Howery still had his mind on what’s next.
“It’s huge,” the junior said. “It’s a super-fun win, but our eyes are on that state championship. We just want to use this win to keep motivating us these last two weeks.”
Engesser led all scorers with 20 points, while Hoekert added nine. The rest of the Lions combined for five points, and zero in the second half.
“We did change things defensively,” Burkett said, “We didn’t allow what we did the first game.”