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Lady Grizzlies stumble in key Big Nine games

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SHS sophomore Tiana Perez blocks out a Moses Lake player in positioning herself for a rebound last Friday.

More often than not the outcome of a basketball game is decided in the waning moments. Not so last Friday night.

Moses Lake, taking advantage of two of Sunnyside's team leaders sitting on the bench at the start of the game, opened too big of a gap for the Lady Grizzlies to overcome.

By the time the two hoopsters, SHS juniors Vanessa Alvarez and Monique Willingham, were given the green light to enter the fray and got their legs underneath them, Moses Lake was up 12-0. The visiting Chiefs ended up winning by 11.

Naturally, Lady Grizzly fans walked away disappointed, especially after figuring out that once all of Sunnyside's regular starters took the court their club outscored the Chiefs by one. The 56-45 loss stung even more, though, because had the host Lady Grizzlies been victorious they would have moved into a tie with Moses Lake for the top spot in the Columbia Basin Big Nine League standings.

Sunnyside's chances of making up ground on Moses Lake took an even bigger hit the following night, as the Lady Grizzlies dropped a 63-58 decision on Saturday at Eastmont. Only half a game out of the league lead heading into the weekend, Sunnyside now sits at 6-4, smack dab in the middle of the CBBN pack and a full three games back of the Chiefs (9-1).

Sunnyside Coach Rick Puente said the reason two of his starters were on the bench to open Friday's game was the result of implementing team policies and rules. But he didn't use that as an excuse for his team falling behind by 12 at the outset.

"We've talked to the girls before about starting off games tougher," he said. "One of our goals this coming weekend is to focus on getting off to better starts.

"We also want to ramp up our defensive intensity. We've shown we're capable of doing that, especially in the second half of a lot of our games, which has led to some great scoring opportunities for us," Puente added.

In trying to battle from behind against first-place Moses Lake on Friday, the Lady Grizzlies pieced together a nifty 9-3 run to close out the opening quarter, after Willingham and Alvarez were inserted into the line-up. Each of them had two points during that stretch, as did sophomore Tiana Perez. A bomb launched from behind the 3-point arc on Sunnyside's last possession of the first period, off the fingertips of sophomore Jordan Rodriguez, completed the run and drew the Lady Grizzlies to within 15-9.

Paced by Willingham's six second-quarter points and another five tallied by Rodriguez - which included yet another buzzer-beating trey with a couple of Chiefs draped all over her - Sunnyside cut further into the Chiefs' lead, down only 25-22 at the half.

Moses Lake's Kaitlyn Stevens, a 5'10" junior, had the hot hand for the Chiefs in the first half, throwing in eight of the 10 points she had on the night.

Sunnyside made it a one-point game when Alvarez, who finished with 7 points on 3-of-7 field goal shooting, hit a runner in the lane to open the second-half scoring. The 5'10" Perez came up with a block on Moses Lake's next possession, then on the return trip down the court was fed the ball inside the paint, only to suffer a hard foul while unsuccessfully getting off a shot. Perez went to the free throw line with the chance to get Sunnyside the lead, but both foul shots were off the mark.

The rest of the third quarter belonged to Moses Lake, or more accurately, to sophomore McKenna Walker. The 5'8" underclassman connected for nine of the Chiefs' 13, third-quarter points, which put the visitors up 38-32 heading into the final stanza. Walker tacked on another five points in the final period, which gave her a team-high 18 on the night.

Sunnyside's third-quarter scoring was spread out pretty evenly, with Willingham leading the way with three points. That proved to be it, offensively, for Willingham, as she finished in double digits with 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting from the floor.

Sunnyside got as close as four points on two different occasions in the final period. The first time came when Rodriguez went to the foul line on the opening possession of the fourth quarter, hitting both shots to get the Lady Grizzlies to within 38-34. The second time again was the direct result of the sophomore Rodriguez, who wove her way between a pair of defenders in the paint and delivered an underhanded scoop shot that found the bottom of the net, cutting Moses Lake's lead to 42-38.

The Chiefs stiffened down the stretch, though, especially in forcing the Lady Grizzlies to put up high risk shots. Offensively, Moses Lake went to Walker and 5'10" junior Carina LeFave, who dumped in 5 and 6 points, respectively, to lead the Chiefs to a 14-7 scoring spurt in the final six minutes of the game.

Rodriguez, despite connecting on just 5-of-21 shots from the field, proved to be the game's top scorer with her 19-point effort. Seven of those points came from the foul line.

Team-wise against Moses Lake, Sunnyside was only successful on 26 percent of its shots from the field. The Lady Grizzlies fared even worse from long range, making just 2-of-24 from behind the three-point arc.

Puente admitted many of the 3-point bombs were the result of the Chiefs forcing Sunnyside's players into taking those shots. "You have to give Moses Lake credit, they played well defensively...they contested a lot of our shots," he said.

Saturday at Eastmont, the Lady Grizzlies dug themselves another deep hole, getting outscored 20-6 in the opening quarter. "We weren't closing out their shooters," said Puente. "Again, we have to learn to be ready to go at the start of games."

Sunnyside, too, suffered another bad performance in hoisting up shots at the basket, hitting just 19-of-61 field goal attempts, which included making only 1-of-14 from treyland.

One of the bright spots that came out of the Eastmont game was discovering that Sunnyside has another player who can serve as the floor general. With Rodriguez and Selena Rubalcava, the Lady Grizzly guards who direct the offense, both fouling out, Sunnyside turned to Alvarez.

"We asked Vanessa (Alvarez) to step up and be our primary ball handler in that final four-minute stretch," said Puente. "She did a great job."

Alvarez, besides pushing the ball upcourt and finding open teammates, also lit up the scoreboard. She canned a team-high 19 points, nine of those coming in the final period.

Willingham had a big game for Sunnyside, too, pushing through 11 points and snatching 16 rebounds for yet another double-double performance.

Also scoring in double figures in the losing cause on Saturday were Perez and Rodriguez with 13 and 11 points, respectively.

The rest of the Sunnyside squad could muster up just another four points.

Eastmont was led by the tandem of Nikki Gilbert and Kylee Buterbaugh with 20 and 17 points, respectively.

Sunnyside will be on the road twice this coming Friday and Saturday, the first game at Davis and the second at Wenatchee.

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