Turnovers fuel Palisade's 4A first-round win vs. Niwot
Using a full-court, trap-heavy press, the Palisade girls basketball team limited Niwot to only two trips across half-court in the first four minutes. After opening an 8-1 lead early and a 19-6 lead at the end of the first quarter, the sixth-seeded Bulldogs cruised to a 63-36 home win over the No. 11 Cougars during the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
Cruz Maestas led Palisade with 22 points and headed a swarming defense that forced 26 first-half turnovers.
Palisade coach Danielle Bagwell said she didn’t expect the press to work as well as it did, but the Bulldogs’ defensive energy sparked an early defensive presence.
“We just had a lot of energy, and our bench kids stepped up,” Bagwell said. “They played a lot of big minutes for us defensively and just got things going. Our kids have worked for the last couple years, just in the offseason, and they’ve prepared for this.
“We had a bitter taste in our mouth ever since the Denver South game last year in the playoffs. I thought they have played really well this season and prepared all of this summer for a chance to play well in the playoffs.”
Maestas, whose outside shot heated up in the final weeks of the regular season, hit three 3-pointers. During this season, Maestas hit four 3-pointers during her first 16 games. In the past six games, she has made 14 3-pointers.
“(Cruz and I) talked about it in the offseason, and she has worked and worked and worked,” Bagwell said. “She’s been taking shots outside of practice, and they finally started falling the last two weeks for her.”
The five 3-pointers the Bulldogs made against Niwot was one short of their season high. Bagwell said Palisade has made a concerted effort to take more outside shots.
“We talked about it,” Bagwell said. “We basically said that we’re good shooters, that we need to shoot the ball instead of forcing it inside always.”
With Aspen Guray missing her second game with a concussion, the Bulldogs didn’t have a go-to pure post. Against Niwot, who didn’t have a player taller than 5-foot-10, the lack of size didn’t matter. Bagwell said Guray likely will be cleared to play against No. 3 Pueblo West.
During Guray’s absence, freshman forward Christa Brown has picked up the slack down low.
“Christa is always going to play solid defense for us,” Bagwell said. “I think she goes unnoticed a little bit because she does all the dirty work. She pulls down the rebounds, and she locks down (the other team’s) bigs really well. (Niwot’s Anna Dunnell) went off once when Christa stepped out of the game — she’s battling a little bit of a cold — but she played well.”
Palisade travels to play third-seeded Pueblo West. The Cyclones are led by junior guard Haley Simental, who is fourth in points per game (18.3) in Class 4A. Simental, despite being only 5-foot-7, has garnered interest from small NCAA Division I colleges.
Maestas said it is meaningful to advance into the second round of the playoffs.
“We just work so hard,” she said. “I think my team deserves this a lot, and the upperclassmen have just been trying to be good leaders to the underclassmen, and I think the underclassmen really stepped it up this game. I didn’t want the season to be over, and it’s awesome.”