Elma’s defense proved that when it’s in top form it can carry the team, even when its offense isn’t firing on all cylinders.
The Eagles held visiting King’s Way Christian to just five points through the first 13 minutes of the game en route to a 45-26 victory in a 1A District 4 Tournament semifinal game on Saturday, earning a spot in the district championship in the process.
With Elma’s offense struggling to get going in the first half, its defense was arguably as superb as it has been all season. Despite struggling to score for much of the first half, the top-seeded Eagles (15-6 overall) shut down No. 2 KWC (11-9), holding the Knights to a lone jump shot by Abby Cummins for the first 5:30 of the game.
But Elma failed to capitalize on its defensive prowess early on as the Eagles managed just four points on an offensive rebound and putback by Kali Rambo and a running shot by Jillian Bieker over that same time span.
KWC took a 5-4 lead on a Cummins 3-pointer with 2:19 left in the period, but Bieker hit 1-of-2 free throws followed by a Quin Mikel bucket in the low post to give Elma a 7-5 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Elma’s offense appeared to shake off the rust of an eight-day layoff in the second quarter, jumping out to a 14-5 lead over the first four minutes of the quarter on a Rambo three, a Jalyn Sackrider bucket in the paint and a Bieker steal and layup.
But Elma’s offense was shutout the remainder of the half as the Eagles missed multiple chances at the rim, often on trips that saw the Eagles get second and third chances due to a strong offensive rebounding game.
KWC closed the quarter on a 5-0 run — three of those points on made free-throws — to trim Elma’s lead to 14-10 at the half.
“We just couldn’t get a bucket,” Elma head coach Lisa Johnson said. “We were creating turnovers, we just couldn’t convert them. So we just stayed what was true to us, which was keep the defense going, and it worked.”
“Right out of the gates, we started out in our press and tried to freak them out and get in their heads” said Bieker, who spearheaded an Elma press that forced numerous turnovers and prevented KWC from settling in on offense.
With Elma’s defense holding the Trico League’s second-place team to a season-low pace, the Eagles offense kicked into gear and proceeded to put the game away in the third quarter. Sackrider opened the frame scoring on a jump shot from the high post to kick off what would be a 12-0 run.
Bieker would score six points during the run, including a steal and layup immediately after Rambo buried a jump shot.
“I think we played down to their level a bit more and that really didn’t help us. … Our shots weren’t going in and we were very hesitant,” Bieker said of the poor offensive showing in the first half. “Coach told us, ‘You’ve got to get your head in the game and play up to your level.’”
Mikel echoed Johnson’s sentiment that the Eagles needed to step up if they were going to win in the playoffs.
“(Coach Johnson) noticed we weren’t playing the way we can play on offense,” Mikel said. “We realized we needed to step it up and came out with a fire and went to work.”
When it was all said and done, Elma held a commanding 26-10 lead with 5:20 left in the third quarter.
Elma, which had scored seven points in each of the first two quarters, tallied 20 in the third period alone.
KWC cut the deficit to 10 at 36-26 on a Laurel Quinn 3-pointer with 6:22 to go in the fourth quarter.
But that’s as close as the Knights would get as Elma closed out the game on a 9-0 run that included a play that was a microcosm of Elma’s style of play on Saturday.
After multiple missed shots and offensive rebounds in a single possession, a scrappy Elma team scratched and clawed for a loose ball. Mikel dove to the floor, as she is often apt to do, and took possession. The senior guard then fed a pass to Bieker, who immediately swung the ball to Rambo at the elbow. Rambo then sent a one-touch pass to Sackrider in the low block, who quickly scored on the nifty bang-bang play to give Elma a 43-26 lead with 1:50 remaining.
Mikel scored off an offensive rebound with 1:16 left to close out the scoring at 45-26 and send Elma to the 1A District 4 Championship against La Center, which defeated Montesano 64-53 on Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Rochester High School.
Sackrider and Rambo led Elma with 13 points each.
Sackrider added nine rebounds and four blocks to her stat line while Rambo had nine boards, five assists and three steals.
Bieker scored eight points and had four steals to just two turnovers.
Elma had 15 assists as a team, 11 in the second half.
While the victory sends Elma to the district-title game for the third straight season, it represented a bit more than that for some of the players in uniform.
Saturday’s game was the last this current crop of Elma seniors would play in its home gym.
The gravity of the moment was not lost on them.
“I think playing on our home court had a huge significance in this game,” Bieker said. “Just wanting to do good for our crowd, our team and our school. … Before the game, that’s all I was thinking about. That this was my last time here and I had to do good.”
“It’s been just amazing,” Mikel said. “So many generations and alumni have played on this court. It’s such an amazing experience to share the court that they played on as well.”
“It’s hard to see them go,” Johnson said. “They’ve done an amazing job here all four years and have brought pride to this community and it’s a heartbreak to have them go.”