A team as young as the St. Mary Lady Vikings is going to have its growing pains. One of those came Tuesday night in a 46-45 loss to Community Christian Academy that came down to a pair of missed free throws. But head coach Gwen Duncan continues to have high hopes for her squad.
“We’re a young team — more than 50% of our players are in the eighth grade,” Duncan said following Tuesday’s game. “With that being said, it’s a matter of them understanding the dynamics of basketball. They’re not at that level where they have that mature basketball IQ, but I think as we get later on in the season you’ll see a much better team.”
To Duncan’s point, seven of the 13 players on her 2021 varsity roster are eighth-graders, and the Lady Vikings have struggled out of the gate to the tune of a 1-5 record. But Duncan knows the struggles are all part of the maturation process.
Having so many eighth-graders on the roster has made it difficult to get full-team practices in, as middle school games are still being made up, Duncan said. That means the players are still working toward coalescing into a solid unit, and some of the fundamentals, such as free-throw shooting, are still a work in progress.
“They have to understand the importance of free throws, so that’s one of the things we’re going to focus on in practice,” Duncan said.
The Lady Vikings made just 11 of their 34 free throws Tuesday for a conversation rate of 32%.
Kaitlynn Burrus, a sophomore, made just nine of her 18 foul shots in what was an otherwise solid outing in which she finished with 21 points. It was her final two misses that stuck out, as they were potentially game-winning shots with her team down one with five seconds left. But those can’t outweigh all the misses team-wide from earlier in the game, Duncan said.
“Yes, if she hits the two free throws at the end, we probably win the game, but what about those other free throws that we missed earlier in the game?” she said of the message she told her players on the importance of free throws.
Burrus was unable to hand her team the win on Tuesday, but that doesn’t downgrade the sophomore any in the eyes of Duncan. As one of the team’s top players, she bears much of the scoring responsibility while also managing point-guard duties as more of a natural two guard.
“We’re still dealing with not having a true point guard. So with our two guard playing most of the time, she’s exhausted a lot,” Duncan said. “She has a lot of weight on her, and when you feel like the whole weight of the team is on you, and you make one or two errors, whether forced or not, you feel some kind of way. But she did a great job tonight.”
Tuesday’s game went down to the wire, and Burrus was the only Lady Viking to play all 32 minutes.
So fatigue may have played a role in the missed free throws, especially after the Lady Vikings had to frantically work defensively to put themselves in position to potentially win the game.
Duncan said there’s no reason for Burrus to dwell on how it ended.
“I’m proud of her and how she stepped up tonight. She’s quick, she’s intelligent, she can shoot and dribble and go to the basket,” Duncan said. “She’s beaten herself up enough. She’s our leading scorer right now, and we put a lot of faith in her. She just needs encouragement right now.”
Tuesday’s performance was plenty encouraging for the Lady Vikings, as they scored a season-high 45 points with Burrus leading the way.
And they got that key defensive stop late that led to those free-throw attempts with five seconds left.
Coming out of a timeout, the Lady Vikings did exactly as Duncan had instructed in pressuring the CCA inbounds pass to generate a turnover. And they had exactly who they wanted headed to the free-throw line after Burrus was fouled on a drive to the basket. Everything had gone according to plan, but a victory just wasn’t in the cards.
“I felt like if we could apply pressure, we could get a turnover. And it worked,” Duncan said. “Everything worked out except for the free throws. She drew the foul but couldn’t connect. But she’s young, and that free-throw line is a whole different thing late in a close game.”
While Duncan was disappointed in the result, she walked away proud of how her team performed overall.
It’s just a matter of time before the Lady Vikings start playing like a more veteran group, she said.
“Just give us a couple weeks,” she said. “When we jell and really get our formula down, and our girls have confidence in one another and themselves, you’re going to see a different team.”