Defense. That’s the key. Sutherland girls' basketball coach Jason Gunderson said his team made it to the state basketball tournament on the strength of its defense.
The Sailors gave up just under 22 points per game in three postseason wins over SMC, Paxton and Crawford in the postseason.
The Sailors (20-5) are the No. 5 seed in the 8-team tournament. They will put the season on the line Thursday in the opening round against St. Mary's (22-2). Tip off is at 8:45 p.m. at Lincoln Northeast. The winner will play at 8:45 p.m. Friday at Pershing auditorium.
"The last three weeks we played our best defense of the season," Gunderson said.
Gunderson says defense has been a focus all season for Sutherland, because with the hot-shooting trio of Joli Hopping, Jalyne Schuster and Kaley Stokey, the Lady Sailors knew they would be a tough team to beat if they consistently improved on defense.
"Going into the season, I knew we could knock down shots," Gunderson said. "So the key was to work on our defense so we could fall back on that if our shots weren't going down."
In addition to guards Hopping, Schuster and Stokey, Sutherland has been able to achieve balance with the play of posts Sam Kennedy, Sam Staggs and Kristen Nelson.
Kennedy in particular has stepped up. The 6-foot-1 center saw her role expand in her senior year after coming off the bench last year.
Better known for her accomplishments on the volleyball court, the North Platte Community College signee has put it all together this season.
"Sam's done a great job," said Gunderson. "This summer, I told her she'd have to be a difference-maker. Because of her size, she was going to have to carry a lot of the load for us."
The Lady Sailors are the No. 5-seed and the underdogs in the first game against O'Neill St. Mary. But they are battle-tested. Three of their five losses are to Class C2 state qualifiers and South Platte Valley Association powerhouses St. Pat's and Hershey.
"We wanted to win the SPVA championship," Gunderson said. "We knew we'd have a tough matchup with both St. Pat's and Hershey and the loss to St. Pat's (in the tournament semifinals) was a tough one because we played very well and we had them where we wanted them.”
“But St. Pat's made plays,” he said.
“Just the style those teams play helps prepare us for state because we know that's the type of team we're going to see,” Gunderson said.
Sandhills-Thedford (20-8) is the No. 8 seed in the Class D-2 tournament, facing Falls City Sacred Heart (23-4) in the first round at 9 a.m. Thursday at Lincoln Northeast.