Since dropping a 40-point decision to No. 3 Marian back on December 5, the Taylor Trojans have rebounded quite nicely, winning five straight contests heading into their game with Grace on Saturday afternoon.
Behind a strong second-half effort, combined with stout performances by Kayla Kirtley, Merideth Deckard, and freshman Ava Henson, the Trojans increased their winning streak to six games, overcoming a slow start and defeating the Lancers 76-60 at Odle Arena for the seventh consecutive time.
Taylor’s sluggish beginning led to an early deficit, as the Lancers knocked down four threes in the opening 3:40 to take a 12-7 lead. However, Taylor awoke from its slumber, ending the first quarter on a 12-0 run to grab a 19-12 first quarter lead.
“We had a sluggish practice yesterday, and I was afraid of it carrying over, which happened,” Taylor Head Coach Jody Martinez said. “But once we found our rhythm and got some plays to work, I thought we started playing with more confidence.
The Trojans built their advantage to 10 points, 29-19, at the 5:57 mark of the second quarter, but the Lancers’ three-point shooting kept them close. A 15-6 surge by Grace helped them cut Taylor’s lead to just two points, but a Hensen field goal with 38.9 seconds remaining put the Trojans up 38-34 at the halftime break.
Though the Lancers only shot 36.4 percent (12-of-33) from the field in the first two quarters, they were 50 percent (nine-of-18) from three-point range.
However, after some necessary changes and modifications to their defensive gameplan, the Trojans took the three-point line away from the Lancers completely in the second half, not allowing another triple on four attempts.
“We made some adjustments at halftime to shut down their three-point shooting,” Martinez said. “We extended our defense. Hostetler did an outstanding job of keeping them in the game, so we adjusted the defensive personnel…and we did a different hedging on the defensive side with our pulse to slow them down a little bit. But the biggest thing was extending the defense to the three-point line and not letting them get good looks.”
The Trojans put the game away in the third quarter, opening the second half on a 9-0 run and outscoring the Lancers 20-8, forcing eight turnovers in the process. Taylor shot seven-of-13 in the frame, including three triples, to take a 58-42 advantage into the final frame.
Taylor kept the pedal down in the fourth quarter, leading by as many 20 and never allowing their advantage to fall below 14 points.
Kirtley paced the Trojans on Saturday, leading the Trojans with 19 points to go along with eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a pair of blocks. More of a three-point specialist a season ago, Kirtley has become a well-more rounded offensive threat, scoring from both beyond the arc and in the post against the Lancers.
“Kayla is an inside-outside threat,” Martinez said. “She sees the floor very well. When you are able to get some inside scoring…the outside threes are more open.”
Deckard shot the lights out for TU throughout the afternoon, scoring 17 points on six-of-nine shooting and five-of-eight from the perimeter. The smooth shooting senior helped the Trojans work their early first quarter woes, giving Taylor the lead for good late in the stanza.
“Merideth is deadly when she is set,” Martinez said. “When she is confident and locked in, it’s just a beautiful arch.”
Henson played her best game in a Trojans uniform, scoring a career-high 12 points and adding five assists, also a career-best. While she thrived on offense, it was her defensive play that was most impressive. She limited Kyannah Stull, Grace’s leading scorer at 16.6 points per game, to just two points in the first half, and held Lancer sharpshooter Kamryn Hostetler to just two points in the second half after she scored 17 in the opening two quarters.
“Ava’s defensive role was amazing,” Martinez said. “She is the one who guarded Stull the whole first half, held her to zero. We put her Hostetler, and she only scored two in the second half. She finished with double figures, and she led us in assists. It was a great, all-around [effort] by Ava.”
Taylor finished the contest 26-of-51 from the field (51 percent) and 12-of-29 (41.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Defensively, the Trojans kept the Lancers grounded, despite their efficient three-point shooting in the first half, holding Grace to 21-of-59 from the field (35.6 percent) and nine-of-22 (40.9 percent) from distance.