PAXTON — Clarissa Gross is a first-year basketball head coach who gets it. She understands there are significant moments for various squad members of a team.
One such time is Senior Night, when a team plays in front of its home fans for the final time in a year. She recognizes that the seniors want more than to be recognized in a pregame ceremony.
When it comes time to start the final Paxton-Buckley-Loda home game, Gross will have seniors in the lineup for the opening tip.
“It’s a tribute to all the time and effort they put in,” Gross said.
PBL unveiled a new lineup for its home finale Thursday. The Panthers’ five seniors — Kandace Hofer, Sara Kennedy, Andi Lemley, Erin Lemley and Amanda Ypya — were starters against a St. Joseph-Ogden team which had beaten PBL by 16 points in a recent meeting.
Gross is not so stubborn that every one of her coaching principles must be adhered to without deviation. As she game-planned for the Spartans, she realized with her starting personnel that a man-to-man defense might not be best.
“We used a defense we hadn’t used all season,” Gross said, specifically avoiding mention of the four-letter word (zone) that she didn’t want to speak.
That’s another sign that the rookie coach gets it. With the zone working effectively, PBL led by two points after a quarter, by five points at halftime and by eight points entering the fourth quarter.
As much as she detests the zone defense — “I think it’s lazy,” Gross said — she kept with it.
“I’ve always been told, ‘Why try to fix what is working?’ ” she said. “It worked fine, so why change?”
She might have questioned that strategy in the fourth quarter as SJ-O fought back from a deficit as great as 10 points to create a 46-46 tie in the final 20 seconds on the third three-pointer of the period by freshman Katie Landis.
The Spartans — who led twice in the game for a total of 31 seconds — had the momentum.
PBL, however, had a senior nucleus which was not to be denied. Ypya, who scored a game-high 16 points, penetrated to the right of the basket but didn’t shoot. She rifled a pass to another senior, Hofer, who was surrounded by Spartans 8 feet from the basket on the left side.
Hofer hadn’t scored in double figures in any of her previous five games, but Gross asked her to be more offensive-minded.
“She’d rather get someone else the ball,” Gross said. “When her and Ypya were in my office watching film of St. Joe today on their down time, I told her to look for her shot more. Tonight, you could see it in her eyes.”
Hofer rose with a soft jumper that swished through the basket with 12.3 seconds left and completed her 6-for-11 shooting performance from the field.
It proved to be the final points in PBL’s stirring 48-46 Sangamon Valley Conference triumph.
She scored 12 points. Another senior, Andi Lemley, had 10.
Tori Master (16 points) and Landis (nine) were SJ-O’s leaders. Teammate Ashley Beals cleared seven of the Spartans’ rebounds.
It wasn’t just a senior thing, Hofer said. It was a team thing.
“Tonight, we were all connected,” she said. “We knew we’d remember this night, and we wanted it to be a happy memory.”
Gross’ decision to start all five seniors didn’t prevent the team from getting a quick getaway.
Four minutes into the game, PBL led 6-2 and each senior had at least one rebound. That trend continued. The Panthers held a 28-13 edge on the boards.
“Rebounding is something we’ve relied on all year,” Gross said.
What the PBL coach saw most was spirited play from her squad.
“When you play with emotion, this is the outcome you can get,” she said.
As for the game-winning shot, she was fine with Hofer taking it. She would have been fine with anyone else on the court attempting it.
“I believe in every single one of them,” she said. “The only time I tell any one of them not to shoot is after the first pass on offense. We want to make the defense work.”
And about that defense, which worked so well for PBL in Thursday’s girls’ home finale? Gross said not to expect to see it again.
“It worked tonight,” she said, “but I am strictly man-to-man.”
Fortunately for PBL, Hofer was in the zone on her final shot.
“Ypya gave me a great pass at the perfect time,” she said.