While scorers and team leaders have come and gone during St. Thomas More’s current run of four consecutive Class A girls' basketball championships, one element has remained constant throughout: outstanding, in-your-face, ball pressure defense for a full 32 minutes each and every night.
Thursday night was no exception as keyed by a stellar defensive effort, the Cavaliers jumped out to a 19-5 advantage over Madison in the first quarter, held the Bulldogs to a mere nine points in the second half and cruised to the team’s 33rd consecutive win with a 54-24 victory on day one of the Cavalier Christmas Classic at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
“As long as we don’t make silly fouls 60 feet from the basket, which we did at times tonight, but when we apply pressure like we did tonight, that eventually weighs on a team,” St. Thomas More coach Brandon Kandolin said. “After that we were able to force turnovers, and that helped us to get some easy baskets and get some momentum. On nights when we are struggling on offense, we pride ourselves in making things happen defensively.”
After a 3-pointer from the left wing by senior Jayden Bies put St. Thomas More up 3-2 35 seconds into the game, both teams began to struggle offensively. The Cavaliers struggled to find holes in a sagging Madison zone defense while Cavalier pressure led to a rash of Madison turnovers.
With St. Thomas More clinging to a 5-2 advantage midway through the first frame, senior Aislinn Duffy proved the necessary spark draining a couple of jump shots from the top of the key sandwiched around an offensive rebound put-back.
“Alex (Kandolin) and Natasha (Swedlund) were able to give me some nice passes at the top of the key, and I was able to make those and give us some momentum,” said Duffy, the game’s leading scorer with 17 points. "Momentum is a huge thing for our team, and when one thing starts to happen, it kind of spirals into other things for us. When we hit a couple of shots, I think we start hustling more and that feeds into the rest of our game.”
Kayla Jacobson drained a 3-point shot and Kandolin followed with a steal and layup and a 3-ball of her own from the top of the key as the Cavaliers jumped out to a 19-5 lead to close out the quarter.
“It was definitely a slow start with both teams trying to figure out what the other team was going to do,” Brandon Kandolin said. “Fortunately we were able to make it hard for them to score and they made it tough on us as well, but I thought the two shots that Aislinn knocked down from the top of the key certainly stretched out their defense.”
Madison cut the lead to 22-10 on buckets by Jessi Giles and Kendra Leighton but would draw no closer as buckets by Bies, Jacobson and Swedlund, often setup by turnovers and easy conversions forced by a Cavalier press, propelled STM to a 9-2 run to close out the half with a 34-15 halftime advantage.
“We work on our press a lot and create turnovers and when we speed up the game that way, it feeds our offense and since we like to run that makes us a better team,” Jacobson said. “We work hard on our defense and that kind of sets up everything else we do.”
The second half was more of the same as tenacious Cavalier ball pressure simply prevented the Bulldogs from establishing any kind of offensive cohesiveness as St. Thomas More went up 46-19 through three periods, before turning the remaining minutes over to the reserves.
The stingy Cavalier defense held Madison to nine total points in the second half including only two points by the Bulldogs outstanding senior guard Jessi Giles.
“She is a very complete player who can do a lot of things on the floor, but I thought Klaire (Kirsch) did a great job of making it tough on her,” Brandon Kandolin said. “It was a great team effort all around to be able to hold that team to just 24 points.”
Bies added 11 points for the Cavs, Jacobson tallied seven and Kandolin chipped in with six.
Giles led Madison with a nine point effort and Maddie Gerry contributed eight points.
St. Thomas More (5-0) returns to the Civic Center tonight for a meeting with Aberdeen Roncalli (4-1) in a 6:30 p.m. contest.