AURORA — Grandview girls basketball team's theme for this season is "feed the wolf."
"There’s a Cherokee narrative between a grandfather and grandson," Wolves head coach Josh Ulitzsky said. "The grandfather talks about a wolf that’s full of gratitude, and a wolf that’s selfish, and we want to feed the right wolf."
The 5A preseason No. 1-ranked Wolves already started executing the motto in the first game of the season with a 62-52 win over No. 2-ranked Ralston Valley on Friday night at Grandview.
UCLA pledge Michaela Onyenwere scored a game-high 23 points and helped trigger the Wolves' offensive momentum from the very beginning of the game.
Onyenwere made an early three-point play that was part of the Wolves' 11-0 run, and was very effective getting to the basket on the left side and laying it in all game. She was also crucial in grabbing her own rebounds and finishing strong for the score.
"We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game, and we knew this was a good team coming off last year’s final four," Onyenwere said. "So, some of the things we focused on were playing smart on the defensive end and executing on offense."
The Wolves started a full court press from the beginning and were relentless throughout the first half on defense. Grandview shut down the lane and either forced Ralston Valley to take tough shots or turn the ball over.
It wasn't until there were just over four minutes remaining in the first quarter the Mustangs were able to put some points on the board, after senior Ashley Van Sickle sunk a pair of free throws then knocked down a three-pointer on the following possession.
Van Sickle kept the Mustangs in the game on offense, making up 14 of Ralston Valley's 24 first half points.
At halftime, Grandview led 30-24. The Wolves never lost the lead, but Ralston Valley fought out of some tough deficits in the second half, and were at one point down by 20.
"We ended up defending really well. The second quarter gave us a bit of momentum and we went on a good run in the third, so I’m disappointed in some of our execution that allowed Ralston Valley to get back in," Ulitzsy said. "I give them credit for hitting tough shots, so I don’t want to take credit away from them, because they’re a very, very, very good team."
On defense, the Mustangs had help from rim protector Sammy Van Sickle, who blocked three shots. Sophomore Shelby Nichols and senior Sarah Bevington were also crucial at grabbing rebounds and helping on the defensive end for the Mustangs.
On the offensive end, Ashley Van Sickle led her team in scoring with 21 points and was explosive in making plays and forcing Grandview turnovers. Sammy Van Sickle was great defensively in the lane, but also stretched the floor and knocked down two three-pointers for the Mustangs. Senior Chloe Gillach had a late offensive burst in the second half that helped cut into the Wolves' lead.
"That was a great test for us out of the gate," Ulitzsky said. "We certainly have things to pick up on and work on. But overall, a good win over a great team to start the season."
Grandview senior Alisha Davis served as a great rim protector for the Wolves and also helped out scoring. Junior Leilah Vigil was also a touch matchup on the defensive side of the play and was physical driving to the basket and grabbing rebounds.
"I think the thing that’s been stretched the most at practice at this point is teamwork and keeping our heads up," Onyenwere said. "We’re great friends on and off the court, and I think that translates onto the court. Keeping our unity and composure is our biggest goal."
Both Grandview and Ralston Valley fell in the 5A Final Four in last year's state tournament, and both teams returned a lot of top players.
"We have some returning kids and we’re still trying to work. They’re great together and we’re still trying to figure it out a little bit, so that’s probably the biggest thing to work on," Ulitzky said. I’m hopeful we’ll continue to get better. They overcame a big challenge tonight."
Grandview's next game is against Fossil Ridge, and Ralston Valley will take on Thornton.