It was a long and challenging opening week of the season for the Pekin girls basketball team.
The Dragons played five games in six days at the Macomb Thanksgiving Tournament, making four trips to the home of the Bombers. Each round trip took about three hours.
Pekin went 2-3 in the round-robin competition. The Dragons played an overtime game, and had back-to-back one-point games on the same day.
“I told the girls afterwards that they’re now battle-tested,” the first-year Pekin coach Brett McGinnis. “Usually it takes a whole season to go through what they went through. They did it in one week.”
After opening Nov. 12 with a 51-36 win over Macomb in which they outscored the Bombers 16-4 in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game, the Dragons lost 51-47 in overtime Wednesday to Illini Bluffs, lost 32-24 to Pleasant Plains on Friday, and beat Havana 39-38 and lost to Moline 45-44 on Saturday.
A free throw by Pekin’s Lauren Juergens with no time left beat Havana. Juergens was fouled on a scrum for a rebound at the other end of the court, sending her to the free throw line for two shots.
Standing alone, Juergens missed the first free throw but made the second.
“It’s ironic that we won a game with a free throw because we didn’t shoot free throws well the entire tournament,” McGinnis said. “I’ll take the blame for that. We’ve been working so hard installing a new system that we haven’t spent enough time working on free throws.”
Pekin was 13-for-28 at the free throw line against Havana. Juergens was 3-for-8 in her nine-point game.
Taylor Goss led the Dragons with 18 points. She was 8-for-11 on free throws. Jenna Taphorn had eight points. Pekin led Havana 22-13 at halftime.
The Dragons fell behind 35-20 at halftime against Moline and came back to take the lead late, but couldn’t hold on. A turnover ended Pekin’s final possession.
“We just dug too deep of a hole against Moline,” McGinnis said.
Goss had 15 points and Juergens had 10 for the Dragons, who outscored Moline 18-4 in the third quarter.
Pekin’s loss to Illini Bluffs stung for a while.
The Dragons gave up a seven-point lead in the last minute of regulation time. They missed three free throws down the stretch and a made free throw was wiped out by a lane violation. Illini Bluffs outscored Pekin 10-6 in overtime.
McGinnis found a silver lining.
“That loss to Illini Bluffs was a good learning experience for our young team,” he said. “There were plenty of teaching moments when watching the film.”
Goss schooled Illini Bluffs for 27 points, including 14 in the third quarter. She was 7-for-8 on free throws for the game. Taphorn had eight points.
“Taylor (Goss) had a great shooting night against Illini Bluffs,” McGinnis said. “She was very aggressive off the dribble, which got her to the free throw line.
“Our offense was stagnant in the first half, but we made some adjustments at halftime and played a great second half until the last minute and a half of regulation.”
McGinnis said his team struggled to find offense against Pleasant Plains in a game in which both teams played well defensively.
Taphorn had nine points for Pekin.
McGinnis said everyone on his team made a contribution during the tournament, he saw growth in several players, and he made inroads in figuring out which girls fit which roles.
Goss made a statement as she began her sophomore season.
“Taylor was a standout last week,” McGinnis said. “She’s obviously a skilled, elite player. But she’s still learning.”
WRONG COLLEGE: Pekin sophomore girls basketball coach and former Pekin star Lauren (Cash) Blondell was a great college player at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Her college was incorrect in a story that appeared in Thursday’s paper.
After starting her collegiate career at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., Blondell played for St. Ambrose as a sophomore, junior and senior.
She was the Midwest Collegiate Conference Player of the Year, an NAIA Division II third-team All-American, and she made the honorable mention list on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-America team as a senior.
A guard, Bondell averaged 15 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.6 steals per game during her senior season (2013-2014) at St. Ambrose and she finished her career 21st on St. Ambrose’s all-time scoring list.
She shot nearly 38 percent on 3-point attempts and better than 83 percent at the free throw line as a senior.
No. 13-ranked St. Ambrose finished 26-6 overall and a perfect 12-0 in the MCC in 2013-2014. The Bees won both the conference regular-season and tournament championships and earned a spot in the NAIA Division II tournament.
St. Ambrose ripped off a 20-game winning streak during the season, third-longest in program history.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.