By Ben Hanneman
That was the idea anyway – at least in part – as the Pulaski Lady Cougars traveled to Blacksburg High School for the opening game of the River Ridge District tournament Monday night, which ended in a 53-44 Bruin win.
There certainly was precedent for an upset. Okay, maybe not by this group, but back in 2008—obviously well before most of the current players were even blips on the varsity radar—Pulaski finished the regular season with just three RRD wins, well behind Hidden Valley (8-2) and Salem (5-5).
As a result they entered the tournament a sizeable underdog against Salem in the opening game. In the end, though, the Cougars edged the Spartans by a point and then shocked the Titans by one bucket to claim the RRD tournament championship trophy.
Fast forward five years and the Lady Cougars, 2-8, were again set to enter the tournament as a decided underdog, this time against Blacksburg (6-4). And early on the Lady Cougars looked like they would at least hang around the district’s third-best regular season team.
Coach Jason Grubb’s crew capitalized on key first quarter steals to keep it to a very manageable three-point game, 14-11 in favor of Blacksburg, after eight minutes.
“There was a period early on in the first period where we played with some good intensity, but that intensity went down in the second quarter. I don’t know if it was confidence or what, but we just weren’t bringing it. We got it going late, but we just ran out of clock,” Grubb said.
In that second quarter, both sides seemed to hit the snooze button offensively, especially right before halftime. Combined the two put up just 13 points in the period, eight by the Bruins.
But in the second half the Bruins had other ideas than to simply allow the relatively upstart Cougars to steal the game, especially on the Bruins’ home court.
Pulaski’s attempts to convert turnovers into points were thwarted at ever turn, particularly in the final quarter, as they struggled to penetrate the Blacksburg defense.
“We started trying to make a run at them at the beginning of the fourth quarter with some full court pressure and we’d get turnovers, but we couldn’t score,” Grubb said.
Part of that was because of Blacksburg’s methodical style of play, Grubb added.
“Blacksburg is just kind of a blue-collar type team. They’re just a working type team. They have a bunch of kids who average about seven points a game and they all just play hard, play good defense and work together, sort of that lunch-pail sort of approach,” Grubb said.
But another part was an inability to get the ball into the post with any regularity.
“We were running our offense too close to the three-point line. We weren’t spreading them out enough, so it was easy for them to deny passes,” Grubb said.
The Cougars managed to cut a 21-point deficit to just nine points in the fourth quarter with key three-pointers by Jordan Chrisley and Chelsea Golden. But the roller coaster intensity, not to mention a deeper, faster opponent, again proved too high a mountain to climb.
“If we play that hard early on things could have been different,” Grubb said.
Appropriately, Chrisley, in her final game in a Cougar uniform, led the team in scoring with 13, including a three-pointer, one of six on the night for Pulaski. Golden drilled three triples and finished with 11 points, the only other Cougar in double-figures.
Freshman Meredith Mitchell was relatively and noticeably quiet with just six points, including one from beyond the three-point line.
Conversely, Blacksburg freshman Chris Martin led the Bruins on the scoreboard with 14 points on a seven-for-14 shooting night to help her team advance to round two against Hidden Valley Tuesday.
Despite the early exit, Grubb, as always, was quick after the game to point back to the positives his young team will take into the off-season and build on next year.
“I think they’ve made a lot of improvements, personal improvements and as a team. They’ve closed the gap on some of the teams around us. They’ve learned to play much better together and they’ve improved as shooters, defenders and rebounders. We still have plenty of work to do, and that’s what we talked about,” Grubb said.
By far the biggest improvement, Grubb added, has been in the physical toughness that adversity brought their way this year.
“We’re no longer a young team because we’ve been through a whole season. Our freshman and sophomores have had considerable playing minutes. Now they’re more poised, they’re more confident. They have a better sense of urgency and the type of season they had this year is going to make them better down the road,” Grubb said.