It was early in the second half when Aquinas High School senior Kyah Steiner demonstrated best how tough she and her teammates were making life on Central’s girls basketball team.
Central freshman Whitney Mislivecek dribbled to her right, and Steiner let her go at the free-throw line and waited for defensive help.
The split second that it didn’t happen, Steiner blew through the lane, made up the lost ground and blocked and rebounded Mislivecek’s shot from the block. She fired the ball down the court, and the play resulted in a 3-pointer for Jessa Peterson.
The Blugolds were focused on defense from the opening tip and turned it into an 85-49 victory Tuesday night that gave them a share of their fourth straight MVC championship as roughly 700 people watched at the Mark Sutton Memorial Gymnasium.
The Red Raiders didn’t get their first shot off until 3 minutes, 44 seconds had run off the clock, and Aquinas (18-0, 10-0) turned them over on 13 of their first 14 possessions — including the first 10 of the game — on the way to a 20-0 lead that set the tone.
“Central has been playing very well, and we addressed that before the game,” Donarski said. “We needed to get some pressure on them right away, and we made it very difficult for them.”
Six Aquinas players had at least one steal as the initial lead was built and 10 had at least one steal in the game.
Sophomore Courtney Becker’s 15 points led the way for the Blugolds, who are ranked first in Division 4 by The Associated Press and ran their conference winning streak to 33 games. Aquinas has won 40 straight regular-season games.
“We cut off the passing lanes, and that brought the intensity we need defensively,” said Steiner, who had 10 points in the game and two steals in the first four minutes. “Our (defensive) rotation has improved a lot since the beginning of the season.”
The pressure flustered the Red Raiders (7-13, 3-7), who entered with two straight conference victories. Central actually made 9 of 19 shots in the first half, but it faced a 51-19 deficit by halftime after turning the ball over 21 times.
The Blugolds converted in transition and moved the ball well to create open looks from the perimeter.
Sophomore Taylor Theusch, who accompanied Becker to Aquinas this season after playing at Cochrane-Fountain City as freshmen, made three first-half 3-pointers and scored 13 points. She also had a steal that set up a Becker three-point play that gave the Blugolds a 20-0 lead with 13:01 left in the first half.
The two have made a pretty seamless transition for a team that was returning nearly everyone from a team that was WIAA state runner-up a year ago. Theusch, a guard, has been a consistent shooter from the 3-point line.
“There are a lot of things we have to do defensively, and we all have to rebound well, especially with (offensive) boards,” said Theusch, who had a putback on a missed shot in the second half. “I also have to shoot when I’m open. We have a lot of shooters, which is good, but that’s something I have to be able to do for us.”
Theusch is averaging 11.6 points over the last five games and made 13 3-pointers during that stretch.
“We always knew she could shoot the ball very well,” Donarski said. “It was a matter of finding her fit within the team. I think her teammates have a lot of confidence in her, and she is very good at finding open space.”
The Red raiders were led by senior Sophie Leinfelder’s 15 points, 12 of which came in the second half. She made three 3-pointers.