First-year Wood River High School girls' basketball coach Mendy Benson has the young and improving Wolverines on a step-by-step plan to success.
Here is Benson's Step One: Get into situations where the game is close at the end. And Step Two: Learn how to win.
Step One is coming along beautifully, based on Wood River's thrilling home-and-away games against Minico of Rupert and Buhl last week.
But the Wolverines (0-7, 0-2 league) are still learning how to win. Benson said, "We're getting used to playing with each other. The chemistry is building and we're working hard."
Nobody in the loud Wood River rooting gallery doubted for a minute that Benson's varsity worked and battled extremely hard in Thursday's 52-49 Great Basin Conference West loss to Minico in Hailey.
Trying to snap a 31-game Great Basin league winless streak that dates back to Dec. 2004, Wood River threw a scare into the Spartans with a 21-point fourth quarter that wiped out an eight-point deficit. The hot hand belonged to junior Grace Lagodich (13 of her team-high 15 points in the fourth).
Wood River trailed 50-49 with 25 seconds left and had two legitimate 3-point rainbow prayers to tie the game, both taken by freshman leading scorer Kaitana Martinez (10.3 ppg). Martinez (12 points, 3 steals, 4 assists) now has five double-digit scoring games.
Afterwards, her players still buzzing from the excitement of a down-to-the-wire finish, coach Benson was excited about her team's progress.
She said, "We had great intensity and great focus—the best job we've done of executing offensively. We did a much better job with the basketball. We've been averaging 28 turnovers a game. Tonight it was 15.
"Grace Lagodich was huge, phenomenal. We've been emphasizing to the girls that we can't just have one person in doubles figures like K.T. (Martinez) has done for us. To win basketball games we need two or three players in double figures. In this game, although we got down early, we never got emotionally down."
"It's a huge positive to have eight players on varsity who are all ridiculously unselfish. They're a dream to coach."
Having lost 13 straight games dating back to last season, Wood River got behind the eight-ball early when Minico's 5-7 junior guard Brecka Fetzer (10.8 ppg) lit it up in the first quarter with 12 of her game-high 29 points. She had 18 in the first half alone, and five of Minico's seven 3-pointers for the evening.
Even Fetzer's Minico teammates wondered what she had eaten for breakfast.
Fortunately for Wood River, Minico started getting a little sloppy with the ball in the second quarter and couldn't extend its lead past eight points.
The scrappy Wolverine man-to-man defense also had something to do with Minico's seven turnovers in the second. At half, Wood River trailed 25-19.
Wood River persevered and hung around. The home girls started finding the open man on offense. They made their move when Lagodich got hot early in the fourth. She canned three straight baskets, two from some distance, and forced Minico to scratch its collective heads and call time out.
Nothing worked for longtime southern Idaho girls' coach Joe D. Shepard of Minico. Wood River senior Samantha Engel (4 rebounds in the fourth) cleared the glass and Lagodich drilled a 17-footer for a 42-39 game. Lagodich added a baseline runner and converted a three-point play.
With 1:20 left, Lagodich hit from 14 feet and Martinez sank her second 3-pointer of the game trimming Minico's lead to 49-47 at 40 seconds. Alex Lindbloom's transition bucket, from Martinez, made it 50-49. But Minico senior post Laci Garner calmly made two free throws at 19 seconds to ice it.
Other top WRHS stats were Engel (5 points, 5 boards, 2 assists), Monica Garceau (7 points, 5 rebounds), Lindbloom (4 points, 2 boards, 2 steals) and Cheyenne Swanson (6 points, 5 rebounds). Minico outscored Wood River 13-5 at the line, but Hailey had a 22-18 board edge.
Fetzer made most of Minico's noise, but Laci Garner (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) and Kendra Bailey (11 points, 2 boards) scored in double figures, and Tianna Stimpson (4 assists) made passes.
Saturday, Wood River took the floor against a Buhl program that had fallen twice to the Wolverines last season. This time, host Buhl (1-4) outlasted Wood River 37-33 in OT. Hailey scorers were Martinez 11, Swanson 8, Lagodich 4, Engel 4, Lindbloom 2, Garceau 2 and Angela Coleman 2.
The Wolverines (13-for-20) continued to shoot well from the charity line, where they've averaged 67% over four games.
Wood River traveled to Burley Tuesday for another GBW league contest against a Bobcat squad (5-3, 0-1 league) eager to make amends for its 37-36 loss to Skyline of Idaho Falls Saturday and its 46-37 setback to defending conference champ Jerome (10-0, 2-0) last Tuesday.
Minico (3-4, 1-0) visited Jerome Tuesday in another GBW match.
The Wolverines finish their pre-Christmas slate with three games, two on the road and all winnable. Wood River hosts winless Pocatello (0-7) Saturday, Dec. 13 in a rare 3:30 p.m. varsity matinee in Hailey.
Benson's squad travels to Filer (3-1) Tuesday, Dec. 16—the Cats coming off a 54-41 win at Buhl last Thursday. Filer won 48-36 at Wood River Nov. 20. Then Wood River plays at Gooding (2-4) on Thursday, Dec. 18—the Senators a 43-39 home winner over Buhl Dec. 2.