The fly route
Friday night's game at Paola saw the best, the worst and the future of De Soto basketball. Even though the boys barely beat a mediocre team and the girls lost their sixth game of the season, the messages were resoundingly positive.
That it would be an overall positive night for the girls team wasn't evident from the start - in fact, it was downright surprising given the first couple minutes of the basketball game.
The first month of the season has proven to be a learning experience for what is a remarkably young girls team. It lost five of its first seven games and at times looked bad doing it. So when the team quickly trailed at Paola, falling behind 9-2 in the opening minutes, it was entirely possible things could get ugly.
The team rallied. It stiffened on defense and used a three-pointer from freshman Shelbi Petty and a dominating stretch from junior Barbara Hartz to tie the score, 16-16.
Paola pieced together another strong stretch to close out the half and again appeared to have the Cats ready to collapse, up 27-16 three minutes into the third quarter. De Soto responded once again, however, and did so in a promising fashion.
Amber Wilson, the team's only senior, hit a three-pointer. Sophomore Kelsey Fisher then began to pull out of a shooting slump by banking a three-point attempt in off the glass. De Soto, playing much more aggressively, just missed on several chances - two layups rimmed out after strong drives through the lane. It finally cut the gap to one on another Hartz score, then took the lead, 28-27, when Petty dribbled out from under the hoop and found Wilson for an easy basket.
In that run was perhaps the best the team can be. Fisher, one of the team's most experienced players, was on her game - she hit another trey several minutes later. Tami Crow was helping control the offense and driving through the lane. Hartz was using her speed and touch to slice through the defense and Williams was working hard in the paint. Finally, Petty was playing to her full potential.
It was easy to see what has fans excited about the 5-foot-2 (5-2, really? I wouldn't take that one in front of a judge) freshman. She served well as the team's point guard, but was equally impressive shooting the ball - she sank three three-pointers in the game - and forcing the offense forward no matter where she was. Regardless of her actual height, it was amazing to see her post up on the block and repeatedly take the ball into the lane and emerge successfully.
De Soto didn't have enough to beat Paola - the Panthers finally pieced together a run the Cats couldn't answer and proved cold-blooded enough to make the appropriate free throw. Still, that the team responded to two dangerous deficits and the manner in which those rallies took place was a bright light not just for what the team could be this season, but for what it could be in the next three years.
The boys were equally impressive, and it came in equally bizarre spurts. The game appeared to be over about as soon as it started - the Cats went up 18-3 midway through the first quarter, destroying Paola with an aggressive full-court press.
Foul trouble mounted, however, and when De Soto pulled back into a zone - it's best two players on the bench - it was a game again. Paola tied the game in the third quarter, then took the lead. It scored 15 consecutive points over one span, a part of a 21-4 run that put the Panthers in control of the game.
De Soto managed to win. It clawed back to tie the game, then took control in overtime. Along the way, it got a series of season-best performances - several of which the team desperately needed.
Andre Linzy and Jamell Townsend were as strong as they had been all season, but senior Erik Hill rose to score 12 points, his best game of the year. Junior Tommy Elmer scored 10 and Brendan Hudson had nine, including one three-pointer with 70 seconds remaining and another at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Hill was a big part of last year's team. Though he hasn't lost minutes, he's lost a little of the spotlight with the addition of Townsend. The team's still only at its best when he can score and fight for rebounds, however. He did that Friday night more efficiently than he has all season.
Hudson's game was also more than welcome. He's a three-point specialist, but sat mired in an ugly slump until Friday. He hit his first trey in the first half, then rattled home another one as the Cats were struggling to get back in the game.
De Soto took a rebound on a missed free throw down the court with eight seconds remaining, Hudson calmly camping beyond the line in the corner. He didn't hesitate when he got the ball, and his perfect shot ensured De Soto wouldn't endure what would have been a heartbreaking loss.
A guy who has not just the confidence, but the skill to take the open three-pointer every time it's there is a very valuable commodity. It's one of just several important pieces De Soto rediscovered Friday night.
It was a close game, a potentially embarrassing loss given not just the huge lead, but the fact that it would have been Paola's first win. But the best part for the Wildcats was the inspired play of a larger segment of its roster.
Townsend and Linzy will no doubt have a big say in what happens to this team in 2008. They won't be able to do anything without the help of Friday's heroes, however.