The Sacred Heart girls took care of business on Wednesday night as they defeated Stringer 58-35 to get back to the quarterfinals of the 1A playoffs.
The Crusaders’ 19-2 season and deep playoff run were expected after not graduating any of their starters from a year ago. However, there is a major difference for the Crusaders, and that is sophomore guard Avery Smith, who led the team with 16 points against the Red Devils.
This time last year, teams knew to guard to double and even triple-team guard Gracie Falla, who in the postseason last year was scoring over 20 points per game. Falla believes that Smith has been a major factor for the offense that opposing teams seem to overlook.
“I think a big key (that’s different from last year) is getting Avery Smith back,” said Falla, who scored 12 points. “She helps out a lot on offense. She’s a big add-on to our team.
“(The offense) opens up really well. She’s kind of like a secret for us because they didn’t see her last year. She can score, and when they (bring) the double teams and triple teams, it gives her opportunities.”
Smith missed last year’s postseason run after she tore her ACL, which according to her was difficult to miss. At the same time, her road to recovery was just as difficult.
“It was hard to watch, but I was so happy for the girls because they did what no one thought they could do,” Smith said. “They pulled together and just went and took it.
“It was a hard rehab at first, but my dad got me through it. He took me out to a gym, and we started working out every single day. I was even sitting in a chair shooting a basketball when I couldn’t walk. I owe my comeback to my dad, but my teammates were there for me too. They were always checking on me. Those girls are my family, and they mean such much to me.”
Sacred Heart coach Matt O’Keefe believes that Smith is just scratching the surface of her abilities.
“She’s healthy, but after games, her knee will still swell on her,” O’Keefe said. “I think she will be even better last year. It’s taken a while for her with rehab. She has a chunk of ability, and she’s only a sophomore.”
Sacred Heart opened the game with a full-court press which lasted for most of the first quarter. The pressure defense was set up multiple steals and allowed the Crusaders to spread the ball around, which Falla and Smith helped distribute.
“Gracie and I have a good connection when we are out on the court,” Smith said. “We always know what the other person is trying to do. We kind of feed off each other a lot. Once we get going, then the team goes too. It’s leading people into the plays, but it’s a collective effort.”
The full-court defense gave Sacred Heart holds a 34-17 lead at the half.
“I thought our pressure defense took (Stringer) out of their game,” O’Keefe said. “We did a really good job with our press. (Stringer) adjusted well. We didn’t rotate well at times, but we have press people to get them out of their game.”
The pressure defense did put the Crusaders in foul trouble in the third quarter. Stringer opened the half with a 7-2 run that narrowed the lead to 12 points.
“What hurt us tonight is that we got into big-time foul trouble,” O’Keefe said. “We don’t have a very deep bench. We had people playing a lot of minutes who aren’t used to playing. It might have been good for them. I thought they played well.”
Smith, however, kept the offense afloat and scored eight of her 16 points in the third quarter.
“She’s another offensive weapon for us,” O’Keefe said. “She has played well, but she will be better later. Her knee is still healing, but she has been a major asset for us.”
The Crusaders will travel on the road and face West Lowndes in the quarterfinals on Friday at 4 p.m.