Grand Junction girls basketball hoping harsh schedule pays dividends in postseason

It isn’t often that a team drops three games in three days and can still come away feeling somewhat better for the experience.

Yet that was where Grand Junction’s girls basketball team stood after last weekend. The Tigers endured a road swing that took the squad up to Cheyenne, Wyo. to play a pair of top-five teams, before traveling south to Fort Collins to play last year’s Class 5A runner-up in Fossil Ridge.

All three games resulted in losses, but Grand Junction coach Sam Provenza called it a “learning weekend.” The Tigers (8-4) got away from their game at times, and Provenza said it’s important for the team to get back to the way it’s comfortable playing.

“Record-wise it’s a tough, tough weekend. You don’t expect to go 800 miles and go 0-3,” he said. “At the same time, we learned we’ve got to raise our level of competition to play at that level.”

After winning eight games in a row, Grand Junction may have hit the skids just a bit, but the squad is improving by battling through a gauntlet of stiff competition. Three of the Tigers’ past four in-state games came against 5A state semifinalists from a year ago, and the fourth was against a quarterfinalist.

After defeating Poudre and Lakewood, Grand Junction lost to then-No. 2 Grandview by two points before the holiday break. Wyoming’s fourth-ranked Central edged Grand Junction 47-44 on Jan. 8, and top-ranked Sheridan downed the Tigers the next morning.

“I feel like we’re playing against better teams earlier in the season. In a way that’s got us going more,”  senior point guard Sydni Brandon said. “We know what level we can play at, compared to past seasons. We have a lot of confidence, and that definitely is going to help us a lot in league and I think carry right on through league and into the state tournament.”

The Tigers haven’t played a game on their home floor since early December, and have another road trip this weekend to Pueblo before opening up Southwestern League play Sept. 20 against Montrose. Travel is the name of the game though for teams on the Western Slope, and Provenza said the team isn’t about to use that as an excuse.

“It’s always that way. The closest 5A school to us outside of our league is 250 miles away,” he said. “We could play 3A schools and play up and down the Western Slope, but come tournament time, are you tournament ready? The second part is what does the committee see when they see our schedule?”

That shouldn’t be an issue this season given the level of competition the Tigers have faced. One year removed from a 22-3 season that ended in the Sweet 16 with a loss to Poudre, Grand Junction is younger but perhaps more prepared for what lies ahead.

Six seniors graduated from the 2013-14 team, and only Brandon and junior Tori Catlett started a year ago. Brandon has been a varsity mainstay since her freshman season, when she averaged 6.7 points and 3.5 assists.

Those numbers have climbed each year, but what the senior has accomplished through the first part of this season is the mark of a true leader. Headed into last weekend’s road trip, Brandon was averaging 11.8 points per game and 6.9 assists, but was also second on the team in rebounding at 6.4 boards a game to go along with 5.4 steals.

“She makes it fun for the other kids because I think she raises their level too,” Provenza said. “They see how hard she’s playing, so they raise their level of energy and competition too.”

Brandon isn’t interested in being the dangerous scoring threat. She prefers to get her teammates going instead – Catlett is averaging 13 points and 9.3 rebounds, and senior Melissa Atchley isn’t far behind at 10.3 points per game.

“It’s really that I just love playing for everyone else. What’s fun for me is getting everyone involved and having everyone smile,” she said. “We work really well as a team – we’re not the most talented team, but when you get everyone involved and don’t have one player trying to do everything, you’re more likely to win the game.

“If everyone is confident in shooting, we’re going to keep winning games.”

The SWL slate is only eight games, meaning that the Tigers will have to be on top of their game right from the get-go. Provenza said the league is going to be a fight and is not a given for the squad by any means.

“I think we’ve got to get back to where we were at the end of December. We had some really nice momentum coming out of the Grandview tournament, and we’ll gain that back,” he said. “I think our kids are a little bit hungry right now, and I think they realize they’ve got to get back to that level again.”