In making a run to the finals of the Northern Lights Conference tournament last season, the identity of the Soldotna girls basketball team was defense.
Friday in a 55-18 nonconference victory over visiting Eagle River, the Stars made progress toward finding that identity again.
"The main thing I was happy with was defense," Soldotna coach Doug Blossom said after his team imrproved to 10-6 overall. "We held them under 20 points. It's what we built the team around last year."
The Stars continued to recover from a rough patch in their season. The team started fast, posting a 7-0 record by Dec. 22. But SoHi didn't return to the court until Jan. 10. Six of the Stars' next seven games were against some of the top teams in the state, and Soldotna lost them all.
"I wish we would have had this week right after Christmas," said Blossom, whose team also topped Seward on Tuesday. "We had 2 1/2 weeks of not playing, and everybody else was playing."
Last year's Soldotna squad had success because it played gritty man-to-man defense, caused turnovers and generated points off those turnovers.
After Eagle River kept the game close for the first half of the first quarter, SoHi's defense took over. The Stars went on an 11-0 run to close the first quarter and take a 17-3 lead.
The Wolves had 10 turnovers in the opening quarter, and SoHi used those turnovers to generate looks at the basket that led to 8-of-15 shooting from the floor in the opening eight minutes.
"We improved a lot this game, on defense especially," said Kelci Benson, who had 14 points.
The Stars would not let up on defense all night, forcing nine turnovers in the second quarter, nine turnovers in the third quarter and eight in the fourth quarter.
Eagle River coach Princella Jones credited the Stars with solid defense, but also said many of the turnovers came off of unforced errors by her team.
"If you can't get the ball down the court, you can't score," said Jones, whose team has one win this year. "It's something we're working on."
In addition to defense, the Stars wanted to work on shooting. Blossom said the team was shooting over 40 percent before the holiday break, but has since dipped into the 20s.
Noting that most of the team's shooting struggles come in the half-court offense, Blossom said that in practice scrimmages, fast breaks are not allowed. A team must slow down and run the half-court offense.
Benson and Kaillee Skjold led the half-court effort Friday. Benson knocked down jumpers, while Skjold hit a few jumpers and also slashed to the hoop in piling up 18 points. Blossom also said Kiana Hendricks and Heidi Westerman were effective in the high post.
"We've got to get comfortable in the half-court game," Blossom said. "We're good shooters when we stay confident and relaxed."
Jones said she saw some improvement from her team on defense in areas like rotating, covering down and rebounding.The coach said Katy Tomter did a good job hustling on the boards while Dana Panfil, who had four points, showed some good things on offense. Danielle Crow paced the Wolves with five points.
Stars 55, Wolves 18
EAGLE RIVER (18) — Frost 0 0-0 0, Douglas 0 0-0 0, Panfil 2 0-0 4, Bergqvist 0 0-0 0, Coy 1 0-0 2, Young 1 2-2 4, Williams 1 0-0 3, Crow 1 3-4 5, Tomter 0 0-0 0. Totals — 6 5-6 18.
SOLDOTNA (55) — Prior 0 0-0 0, Benson 6 0-0 14, Kress 2 0-0 4, Litchfield 1 1-2 3, Wong 0 4-4 4, Blossom 0 0-2 0, Shaw 0 0-0 0, Ashe 0 0-0 0, Hendricks 1 2-2 4, Kerkvliet 1 2-2 4, Westerman 1 2-6 4, Skjold 9 0-0 18, Miller 0 0-0 0, Jackson 0 0-1 0. Totals — 22 9-19 55.
3-point goals — Eagle River 1 (Williams), Soldotna 2 (Benson 2). Team fouls — Eagle River 17, Soldotna 9. Fouled out — none.