Van Buren may play six freshmen and sophomores in their nine-player rotation, but the youngsters are already showing early promise.
The Lady Pointers built an 18-point first-half lead en route to a 46-30 win against Gentry Monday in the first round of the Citizens Bank Classic at Bates Arena.
Van Buren will play the winner of today’s Charleston-Shiloh Christian game in Thursday’s 7 p.m. semifinal.
The Lady Pointers (2-0) return two starters from last season — 6-foot-2 senior center Maria Santillana and junior shooting guard Kaylee Sheppard. Coach Merrill Mankin added two sophomores (Michael McElwee and Danae Goodwin) and a freshman (Halie Jennen) to the lineup. Two more young players come off the bench in sophomore Lexie Jones and freshman Lani Snowden along with juniors Michelle Faucher and Makenzie Glassco.
"They are playing because they can play," Mankin said. "They are going to make mistakes. Coach (Richie) Burks keeps reminding me that we have to be patient with them when they make mistakes. Some of these kids were playing junior high or middle school basketball last year."
Van Buren’s youngsters may be thin on varsity experience, but Mankin said playing is the only way to get better. Three games at the tournament this week and four games next week give the Lady Pointers seven games in two weeks.
"We need to play games to get better," Mankin said. "Down the road, we are going to get better. You can see the skills they kids have. They have also understood that if things are not going for a stretch to ride it out instead of panic."
So far, the young team is playing solid defensively, including a win earlier this season in which Van Buren limited Charleston to just 30 points.
"We’re playing pretty good defense. They’ve bought into that," Mankin said. "When they get stronger and more mature, they are going to be even better defensively."
The Lady Pointers saw that 18-point first-half cushion trimmed to 36-28 after three quarters. The Van Buren defense, though, allowed just a field goal in the final eight minutes to pull away for the victory.
"Offensively we are not clicking on all cylinders right now," Mankin said. "We’ve got so many new faces and you can see we are not in sync. We have runs where we can score and we have runs when we can’t. We have to be patient and let them mesh."
Kaylee Sheppard hit four 3-pointers to pace Van Buren with 16 points while Goodwin added 13.
"Maria (Santillana, Van Buren’s leading scorer last season) only scored four points tonight. I knew that (Gentry) would try to keep her from scoring, so some others stepped it up and made some key shots," Mankin said.
Mallory Morris led Gentry with 10 points.
Van Buren led 13-4 after a quarter, then went on a 13-2 spurt in the second to open a 26-8 lead with 2:40 left in the half. Gentry, however, got 3-pointers from Taylor Butler and Aspen Cripps to get back within 12 at 29-17 at halftime.
Van Buren 63, Shiloh Christian 52 (Men’s)
The Pointers (2-0) got a combined 41 points from Mitchell Smith (24) and Ryan Pearson (17) to down the Saints (1-1).
Van Buren built a 10-point lead after three quarters and Shiloh could not get back to within striking distance from there.
VAN BUREN 63, SHILOH CHRISTIAN 52
Shiloh Christian 8 15 15 14 — 52
Van Buren 13 15 20 15 — 63
Shiloh Christian (1-1): Crawford 15, Daniels 11, Kossel 8, Wilson 6, Pauling 3, D. Burk 3, Bandy 3, Lowe 2, B. Burk 1.
Van Buren (2-0): Smith 24, Pearson 17, Harms 7, Eversole 6, Chambers 5, Kursh 2, Martin 2.
VAN BUREN 46, GENTRY 30
Gentry 4 13 11 2 — 30
Van Buren 13 16 7 10 — 46
Gentry (1-3): Morris 10, Borgeteien-James 7, Cripps 7, Page 3, Butler 3.
Van Buren (2-0): Sheppard 18, Goodwin 13, Snowden 9, Santillana 4, Jones 2.