After a last-minute 44-41 loss at Perkins on Nov. 29 in the second game of the season, the Western Reserve girls basketball team has won eight straight games.
Those eight straight wins over the last five weeks have all come by 16 points or more with the exception of a 49-41 win at St. Paul on Dec. 27.
But the true measuring stick comes Wednesday night in Collins. The Roughriders (9-1) entertain Margaretta (13-1) in a matchup of state-ranked teams — and a rematch of a thrilling double-overtime district championship game last March.
“It’s been in the back of my mind since the very beginning, because it’s close to the halfway point of the season,” Western Reserve coach Brenda Friend said. “We’re going to see a team who I think is going to really show us and expose our weaknesses and where we’re at right now.”
Margaretta enters the game ranked No. 7 in the latest Division III Associated Press state poll, while Western Reserve checks in at No. 16. That alone gives the game some added juice, though with the recent history of two one-possession thrillers a year ago, it’s hardly needed.
“I don’t give rankings a lot of stock, but the kids are looking forward to it I think,” Friend said. “Last year, Western goes over there and kind of let it go at the end, and then the two overtime district title game … it’s a nice thing we’re maybe developing between the two programs. With my history of coaching at Edison and Western, this will always be a rivalry to me — because of how good their program has been.
“When you play Margaretta, it has always kind of been a way to measure your improvement and where you are as a program when you can compete or beat them,” she added. “Everyone hates a winner, but measure when you can face be the best, play the best. Their strength is probably our weakness
Out of all the challenges the Polar Bears present, Wednesday expects to show how far Western has come in handling defensive pressure.
“Their strength is probably our weakness,” Friend said. “The one loss at Perkins was against a team with the same style, and we didn’t handle the pressure in last minute of the game. That being said, Margaretta is a much deeper team — and we really welcome that.
“We don’t have teams in the Firelands Conference that play that style or are that deep of a team from top to bottom,” she added. “They can just run people in and out with little drop off and wear you down. So I’ve had this game in the back of my head for a long time, so we can see where we are and how we match up.”
Margaretta enters the game with a deep lineup that includes five players who average from 7.7-to-14.4 points per game. The Bears also feature four players who shoot from 73-to-96 percent at the free-throw line — and five players who average from 2-to-4.4 assists per game.
Statistically, the Bears’ top player is Jayden Moore, who averages 14.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 steals and two assists per game.
“Probably the biggest hurdle — you can’t pick one person to focus on defending,” Friend said of the Bears. “They are amazing passers and have more than five kids who can drop double figures on you. And their speed. I’ve watched them, mostly film, but against Willard, Edison and Perkins — they just get it and go. They spread the floor and it doesn’t matter who gets the rebound. They are not that typical team that has a post player who gets a rebound and immediately finds the point guard.
“They are all so athletic and very skilled, any of them can handle and shoot the ball,” she added. “That’s not what we see on a regular basis, and they can shoot the 3 and put on floor and get to the rim.”
Margaretta is averaging 70.8 points per game while allowing 38.6 — an average margin of victory of 32 points per game. Their lone loss was in overtime against Div. II No. 4-ranked Bellevue (12-1).
Conversely, the Roughriders enter the game averaging 51.3 points per game, but allow just 30.7 points per contest.
“They are also a very physical team,” Friend said of Margaretta. “We don’t see or haven’t seen that other than some scrimmages so far. The teams on our schedule may have one or two kids like that, but they’re deep. That being said, we’re a pretty good defensive team in the half court. My concern is we have to play very smart and not try and get out and run.
“But this is a good test,” she added. “I really have a fondness for the Margaretta community because they love basketball so much. Anytime you face them, you always know it’s going to be one of those types of games where the crowd will be into it.”