Niwot girls win two out of three to open the season
December 8, 2021
It's still early in the 2021-22 winter sports season, but it's not too early for the Niwot girls basketball team to have a better record than it did in its 2020-21 campaign. Behind an impressive performance from freshman guard Rose Pacheco, the Cougars went 2-1 in three games at a season-opening tournament, equaling their win total from the past two seasons combined. After the team's 45-34 victory over Middle Park in the tournament finale on Dec. 4, third-year varsity veteran Carly Toothaker said getting a taste of success after the struggles of the past two seasons, "is the best feeling I've had in a long time."
"I don't think we were expecting it, but Coach Hill has just really believed in us and pushed us really hard," Toohaker said. "Because he knows that we can be so much better than we give ourselves credit for, which really makes a difference for us."
The Jon Hill era of Niwot girls basketball officially kicked off on Dec. 2, as the Cougars squared off against Denver West in the first of three consecutive games on the home court. For a few minutes, it seemed like old times, as Niwot fell behind 6-1 as early season rust and jitters kept the Cougars' shots from going in the basket.
That turned around about midway through the first frame, as Niwot's offense finally started moving the ball more effectively. Paced by fourth-year varsity senior Rachel Nobel, the Cougars scored nine unanswered points to take a 10-8 lead by the end of the quarter, which they extended to 23-15 by halftime. Nobel went into the break with 10 points, while senior forward Grace Crall, now in her third varsity season, had four. Pacheco (4) and fellow freshman Evelyn Melis (5) came off the bench to combine for nine.
The Cougars needed another few minutes to get going in the second half, but picked up the scoring late in the third, once again thanks to Nobel. In the fourth quarter, the explosive Pacheco finally found room for some fast breaks, and tallied six of her 10 points, while Niwot went on to a 48-31 win, its first since February 2020.
Nobel led the Cougar scoring with 14 points, followed by Pacheco (10), then Melis (7), and Crall (6). Pacheco also led the team in total rebounds, with six, while Crall and Melis each had five, and Toothaker and sophomore Molly Slupik each had three.
Afterwards, Nobel said she was thrilled to be back on the court, and getting the first win in two years felt "fantastic. I love my team this year. We've been working so hard, and I feel like we deserve this win." Coach Hill agreed.
"We've been trying not to focus on last year because it's a different team, but they're aware of it, especially those seniors across the program," he said after his first win as Niwot head coach. "They've won nine games in three years, so it was a big deal, and they're fired up, and it just shows the work they've put in to get there."
Hill was happy with the team's performance overall, but had hoped to see better shooting. The Cougars went 17-of-54 from the floor (31%), including just 2-for-13 from three-point range.
"I can't imagine we'll shoot that way the rest of the season," he said.
Shooting improved in Niwot's second game of the tournament against Denver North, to 38% from the floor (14-of-40), but it didn't help on defense. Niwot dropped game two 46-40. Pacheco led the scoring, with 12, while Toothaker had 10, including two three-pointers.
Game three for Niwot combined the best and worst of the prior two games, and had Hill scratching his head afterwards. Led by Pacheco, Niwot started off red-hot, out-scoring the Panthers 25-5 in the first quarter, as the freshman racked up 14 points. But as if a switch was flipped, the Cougars reverted to an earlier version of themselves in the second and third quarters, and the offensive output screeched to a halt. Niwot managed just eight points in the next 16 minutes, six of them from Pacheco. Fortunately, Niwot's defensive effort held off any serious challenge from Middle Park, and a late scoring surge preserved an uneasy 11-point victory.
Pacheco was Niwot's top scorer against Middle Park, with 22, bringing her three-game total to 46. During that span, she went 19-for-34 from the floor (57%), and was 7-for-10 at the free throw line. The newcomer also had 12 steals, 10 rebounds, and five assists.
"I hate having to guard her in practice," Toothaker said of her young teammate. "And I hate when she guards me. She just makes it really difficult for the other team, which takes the pressure off of us and helps so much. And with her steals and fast breaks, she's just everywhere, and it's phenomenal."
Niwot's shooting (17-for-53) was slightly better than in the first game, but the Cougars were out-rebounded by the Panthers 19 to 32, a ratio Hill has targeted for improvement.
"I tell the girls all the time, when they win, it's 100% on them, they are the ones who win," Hill said. "And when we lose, it's on me. And I can say our rebounding comes down to me as a coach. I don't think we've done it enough in practice, and we'll get that corrected on Monday."
Ultimately, Hill was pleased with what he saw from the Cougars over the weekend, and believes most of the mechanical issues, like poor shooting, will fix themselves. As for the inconsistency in game three, he said that can be chalked up to "ghosts" from seasons past that are still hanging around.
"I think that translates into the struggles of understanding how to win. But they feel good. It was really cool walking into the locker room, and they weren't necessarily satisfied with what they're doing, and they knew they could do more."
Niwot takes the floor next against Regis-Groff at home on Dec. 7, followed by road games at Gateway on Dec. 9 and at Battle Mountain on Dec. 11.