HANFORD — It’s a new year of basketball, but not much has changed for the Sierra Pacific girls.
The defending CIF Central Section Division IV champions opened its season with a dominant wire-to-wire victory and showcased a strong returning team poised to deliver back-to-back titles on Tuesday night.
Sierra Pacific senior Janae Tolbert finished with a game-high 17 points and was a force all throughout the night in the 69-25 dismantling of Exeter.
“We were passing really well with each other and sharing the ball a lot,” Tolbert said. “I think we played together as a team this time much better than we did in the past.”
Tolbert repeatedly drove in the lane and got to the basket either finishing with a layup or drawing the contact. She was 3-for-7 from the line and admitted she needs to convert her free throws when she gets the chance.
Their pinpoint passing came from the chemistry the girls have developed with one another. It also helps that the entire team returned this season and even added two new girls to the roster. Unfortunately, they will be without Savvy Torres for the season due to a torn ACL she suffered during the summer.
Kalea Bush was second on the team with 11 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. Haley Bettencourt and Hailey Leslie each added 10 points. They all looked to be in midseason form in terms of their communication and awareness on the court.
“Working as a team, we put in a lot of work in practice on boxing out because we’re a smaller team and just speed and pushing the ball up the floor and looking for each other to get our shots off,” Bettencourt said.
Bettencourt commanded the court with her vocal essence and seemed to be involved with every offensive play whether it was shooting the ball or doing the dirty work by setting a screen. She led the team in scoring last season with 11.1 points per game.
Leslie scored the team’s first points of the season and helped the Golden Bears jump out to a 9-2 lead. The Monarchs didn’t score until almost four minutes into the game and took a timeout with 1:19 in the first quarter after Sierra Pacific built a 17-7 lead.
“We want to be the ones to put the first points on the board, we want to get after it and if we get the jump on it, that means that we’re never going to get behind,” Bettencourt said. “We like to be intense and aggressive and that’s what we’re all about.”
Leading 20-8 entering the second quarter, Sierra Pacific really seemed to find its groove defensively and made Exeter work for every shot. “Quick feet” is something Amy Bush, entering her third year as Sierra Pacific head coach, preaches to her girls defensively and those feet were doing work on Tuesday.
Although they played a lot of man, they showed full-court double teams and employed a full-court press at times, which made it hard for Exeter to move the ball. On multiple occasions — sometimes back-to-back — Exeter wasn’t allowed to move the ball past half court before having it stolen and put in for an easy two points.
Air space was taken away, switches were executed and the shots that were wide open, Exeter couldn’t convert.
“Communication is what allows us to have such a good defense,” Bettencourt said. “We work really well together by being able to talk to each other and have a really close relationship.”
Sierra Pacific led 35-15 at halftime and continued the same strategy in the second half. Offensive rebounds and second chance points really took center stage in the third quarter as they continued to build their lead.
The bench played the majority of the fourth quarter as they ran away with the game and earned their first victory of the season.
“They did a really good job moving the ball,” Bush said. “We’re just working on different plays together and looking at different shots.”
Bush was critical of easy shots inside the paint that were missed and wanted the girls to try and open up the floor a bit more. She said she knows they’re capable of more, which is why she’s so focused on bringing out their best.
“There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement and they know it,” Bush said. “They work very hard together. We’re working on better defense, rebounds and just communication.”
Sierra Pacific (1-0) will get ready for the Girls Varsity Basketball Holiday Classic at Hoover High School starting next Wednesday and ending on Saturday. Their first game is against Sunnyside at 4:30 p.m.