Throw out late November basketball, holiday tournaments and everything else that’s happened so far. And yes, “everything” includes both the Sandpoint girls’ growing pains, and the resurgence of Sandpoint boys basketball.
It’s time for Inland Empire League action.
Like it has in years past, success for both Sandpoint basketball’s teams hinges on 128 minutes of basketball against the Lakeland Hawks and the Moscow Bears. Although league play commenced with Moscow visiting Lakeland on Thursday, Sandpoint teams enter the fray against Moscow this Saturday.
With that said, there’s no time like the present to evaluate how the Bulldogs’ league foes have fared.
Lakeland (6-9, 1-0 IEL)
Moscow (6-9, 0-1 IEL)
If Lakeland’s opening night win over Moscow was any indication of how IEL play will shake up this season, then the league is in for a wild ride.
Thursday night’s 55-45 coming-out party was several years in the making. Save for a pair of wins in the regional tournament, the Hawks lost 24 straight IEL games. To put that into perspective: Lakeland’s six seniors were in fifth grade the last time the Hawks won a league game.
With six seniors and three juniors on its roster, Lakeland is the most experienced in the IEL — and it shows.
Point guard Lauryn Cooper plays with confidence and poise that’s difficult to match. Although she isn’t the most consistent finisher at the rim — not to mention the fact that she only dribbles right — her leadership on defense has been paramount. Naturally, Lakeland flounders without Cooper on the floor; Izzy Kirk and Abbey Neff have been adequate backups, but Cooper is borderline irreplaceable.
Cooper has the luxury of playing with a talented supporting cast, headlined by 6’4 sophomore Katy Ryan.
Right now, Ryan isn’t the most consistent or assertive in the Hawks’ offense. Instead, she plays with a tentativeness of a superhero first discovering their powers. When she is involved on offense, her height and long arms make blocking her nearly impossible, yet her post moves are limited.
Against the Bears on Thursday night, she’d take the backseat on offense, then would come up with a key block or a rebound on the other end and spark the fast break.
Her final stat-line? Ten points, 12 boards and two blocks. Ryan’s development will be an exciting storyline for the Hawks, but absolutely horrifying for the rest of the league.
If things don’t pan out this season, then the Hawks can take solace in the future. Lakeland’s player could very well be junior Mel Loutzenhiser, who is a skilled shooter and a quick defender. Loutzenhiser missed most of the early-season action, and her return has given the Eagles a consistent offensive threat.
Yet Lakeland’s win against Moscow was anything but convincing.
Despite holding the Bears to two second-quarter points — on a pair of free throws with 28 seconds left, nonetheless — Lakeland only led by five at halftime. The Hawks had a double-digit lead in the fourth but hit cruise control too early, allowing Moscow to pull within seven points with three minutes left. It’s possible Lakeland simply caught Moscow on a bad shooting night; the Bears were able to get any look they wanted in Thursday’s loss.
With that said: Don’t count out Moscow. The Bears are well-disciplined, patient and make smart reads on offense.
Against Lakeland, Moscow did most of its damage in the paint, running versatile wings Rheanna Anderson and Peyton Claus through a flurry of screens and making extra passes down low whenever Lakeland’s 2-3 zone focused on the ball. The Bears success starts and ends with senior point guard Megan Jung, who is equally adept at scoring and finding her teammates.
In particular, Claus was often in the right place at the right time. She might be the Bears’ best off-ball player. The junior is quick enough to wreak havoc in transition, and has the athleticism to finish at the rim.
Expect Sandpoint’s Hattie Larson to match up with her over the next couple seasons.
Moscow (6-1, 1-0 IEL)
Lakeland (4-7, 0-1 IEL)
Meanwhile on the boys side, Sandpoint’s IEL foes present an intriguing contrast of styles.
If it were up to Lakeland, each game would be a hectic, transition-filled blitz. The Moscow Bears, on the other hand, prefer their games slow, deliberate and filled with good, fundamental basketball.
The latter approach might not scream “must-see sporting event,” but it’s worked for Moscow.
The Bears haven’t played as many games as their IEL foes thus far, but they’ve impressed so far. While Sandpoint eked out a 54-53 win against Kellogg, the Bears walloped the Wildcats by 38 and held the Wildcats under 30 points.
But the Bears really excel on offense. Senior guard and returning All-IEL honoree Gabe Quinnett is an absolute flamethrower from deep. The 6’4 guard has scored in double-figures in all but one game; unsurprisingly, that exception was in Moscow’s lone loss of the season. In that contest, Walla Walla (WA) held the senior to nine points on 1-18 shooting in the 58-50 contest.
But Moscow isn’t a one-man team. Enter sophomore Benny Kitchel, who is listed as a guard but masquerades as a stretch forward. Most of Kitchel’s possessions start with him hiding behind the defense on the low block, then popping out to the corner as Moscow works the ball around the perimeter. He’s not as accurate as Quinnett, but Moscow doesn’t need him to be. With a sharpshooter like Quinnett on the roster, the Bears need Kitchel to stretch the defense and answer the call whenever he’s open. Unfortunately for Sandpoint — and, most recently, Lakeland — Kitchel has done both of those things well.
The Lakeland Hawks, on the other hand, are a bit of a wild card.
They have better athletes and are deeper than Moscow, yet the Hawks have yet to get consistent play outside of its front-court. Lakeland’s roster is massive. As if burly 6’9 senior Josiah Haaland and rangy forward Jalen Skalskiy weren’t difficult enough to guard, the Hawks bring 6’5 duo Ammon Munyer and Noah Haaland off the bench. Needless to say, Lakeland rebounds the ball well.
Lakeland’s talent drops off in the back-court, which is good news for Sandpoint and Moscow. The Hawks’ season will ultimately make or break, depending on whether its guards show up to play on any given night.
This isn’t saying there’s a lack of talent: Scrappy sixth-man Josh Neilson is a luxury off the bench, while the combo of Jaret Taylor and Ben Zubaly are disruptive defenders.
But only time will tell how this eclectic mix of teams will pan out. Thankfully, the league picture will become a bit clearer after Saturday.