Two girls basketball teams with bulldog defenses are heading into district playoffs after battling each other in a hard-fought contest Feb. 21.
St. Joseph's Academy pulled out a come-from-behind 38-31 win over St. Dominic High School, which had led until halfway through the last quarter.
St. Dominic had a 14-5 lead after the first quarter, stifling St. Joseph's with quickness and tenacity. But St. Joseph's went on a seven-point run to trim the lead to one point of its opponent, using a lock-tight defense and height advantage for rebounding. St. Dominic battled back, extending its lead to 20-15 at halftime. St. Joseph's went ahead 28-27 in the last quarter on a 3-point shot by Erika Pudlowski, then rolled off seven consecutive points before sealing the win on free throws.
St. Joseph's coach Julie Matheny gave St. Dominic credit, calling it "a very strong, competitive team," which was missing its best player, point guard Abby Hermann, due to injury. St. Joseph's record is 16-7 and St. Dominic is 15-9.
On Senior Night, with pregame ceremonies, St. Joseph's "kind of lost focus there unfortunately" at the beginning of the game, Matheny said. "We had size on them, couldn't get a break in the paint. We had some shots we wanted. They just didn't drop."
According to St. Dominic's coach, Jeff Menke, the team's defense has been consistent all season.
"Being outsized tonight we had to play tougher and physical inside," he said. "We played terrific, just wore out at the end and didn't execute on the offensive side late in the game."
Menke praised his players who've stepped up in the wake of Hermann's injury, including Madison Miller, who had 9 points vs. St. Joseph's, and Ella Kasubke, who led her team with 15 points. "I feel good going into the districts," Menke said.
Mary LaBelle, who came off the bench for St. Joseph's, contributed to the strong defense and added four assists on offense. "We knew this was a big game and we needed to keep the defense up to keep St. Dominic on their toes," LaBelle said. "They did a pretty good job handling our pressure. We just knew we had to keep going."
Annie Lally picked up her St. Joseph's teammates, hitting a 3-pointer and another shot on successive plays to start the second half coming off the bench. She ended up with eight points and three rebounds.
"It was a tough game," Lally said. "It was hard coming out of a deep hole, but we fought our way back."
Matheny said she's enjoyed the season with "solid competitors, good families. The reason I've been doing this over 25 years is because we've been blessed with some wonderful young ladies. I say 'we' because I coach with my twin brother (Bob Goessling) and coach (Tim) Stock. We have a great administration that supports us, and we try to focus on not just the competitiveness but sportsmanship and being prepared. Those are the life lessons."
Her players love playing the game and "it's hard because everyone wants to play and not everyone gets to play," Matheny said. "But they genuinely care and support each other and are happy when each other does well. We had a sophomore who saved us tonight. (Lally) stepped up and hit some 3s, and no one pouted and said, 'She's taking my time.' They get the bigger picture."
Coaching at her alma mater "is a blessing to be able to give back," Matheny said. The faith aspect plays a role "knowing that there's someone bigger than us who has allowed us the opportunity to participate."
LaBelle said with districts starting, "we have to keep winning if we want to keep playing. It's all about playing for us as a team, it's what brings the fun."
The junior guard said the players take their faith seriously, though, in a reference to the team's struggles on offense, she joked that "from the game it looked like we gave up shooting for Lent." The players try to be good sports and welcome their opponents, LaBelle said. "It's an honor to play for St. Joe and wear that jersey."
Lally cited St. Joseph's teamwork and support, noting that "when I miss a shot they always have my back and tell me to keep going." The sophomore forward said, "We all just love each other. It's awesome to be able to play for St. Joe while getting a Catholic education and living our St. Joe motto, 'Not I, but we.'"
St. Joseph's begins Class 5 district play Monday, Feb. 27, against the winner of Ritenour vs. Hazelwood East. St. Dominic's first district game in Class 4 is Thursday, March 2, against the winner of Mexico vs. Fulton.