ROCKFORD — Auburn was 36-12 in the conference the last three years and won its only NIC-10 girls basketball title in history in 2020. But injuries, ineligibility and a never-ending coaching carousel seems to have finally caught up with the Knights.
At least temporarily.
Hononegah forced 11 third-quarter turnovers to erase a one-point deficit and roll over Auburn 43-24 Tuesday in the two teams’ NIC-10 opener.
“Our defense is everything,” Hononegah coach Jason Brunke said. “That is this group’s calling card. When we are locked in on defense, it generates a lot of things for us. It gives us a lot of confidence and gets us going.”
Defending NIC-10 champion Hononegah (2-1, 1-0) didn’t look particularly impressive. “I don’t think there was one forced turnover,” Auburn coach Dalton Miller said. “It was all us being careless with the basketball.”
But that’s what Hononegah does. Hono defenders don’t get in opponents’ faces. They get in their passing lanes. And if teams pick up their dribbles too early, they are in position to pick off their passes and jump-start their own offense. Hononegah trailed 16-15 early in the third quarter before turning four Auburn turnovers into an 8-1 push.
“That’s what our defense is all about, being in the right spot,” said Carly LaMay, one of two Hononegah players with eight points. “You don’t have to be the quickest or fastest person; you just have to get to your spot and you will jump those passes and get a steal and start a fastbreak.
“We get a steal and go. That’s the easiest way to score. We call them free points.”
By the end of the quarter, Hononegah led 30-19.
“They were hanging around, but we turned up the intensity,” LaMay said. “Our defense is what gets us into our offense. Those steals led to fast breaks and that’s where most of our points come from. It also helps boost our energy.”
Auburn is now 2-4 with its four losses being by an average of 28 points.
The Knights played solid defense, with no Hononegah player reaching double digits. LaMay and Emma Clark had eight points each for Hono while Jordan Johnston and Haley Warren scored seven apiece.
“The first half we held them to 15 points. I will take that all year long,” Auburn coach Miller said. “We want to be a solid defense in the half court. We just kind of lost ourselves in the second half. We weren’t as disciplined, let them speed us up, let them make us do some things we didn’t want to do.”
Auburn has several issues:
Forward Gabriella Longstreet is out with a knee injury but should return in a week or two. Senior guard Zhakyla Evans is a bigger issue. She has started since she was a freshman but probably won’t play until late January because of academic issues.
Without Evans, teams have smothered senior forward Brooklyn Gray, last year’s NIC-10 MVP.
“We know how talented a player Brooklyn is,” Hononegah coach Brunke said. “She is so dangerous with the ball in her hands. We put a lot of attention on her and did whatever we can to slow her down.”
Gray led Auburn with eight points Tuesday, but made only one basket. And that came off a steal. In the halfcourt, Hononegah almost completely shut her down.
“It is difficult, but we’re working together,” Gray said. “We’re trying not to dwell on players being out. We’re trying to dwell on what we have and trying to get better day by day."
“Teams can key on her all they want,” Miller said. “Somebody is going to have to step up and make some shots for us.”
Getting used to new coaches
Gray is confident Auburn will get better soon.
“I wouldn’t say their defense messed us up. We were just in our heads,” she said. “We could have made better decisions. It was more our nerves than their defense. But it’s Nov. 30. We won’t dwell on the loss. We’re pushing forward.”
Auburn is getting used to new players who have little experience.
“They are a dangerous team,” Hononegah coach Brunke said. “They are giving a lot of players some minutes and they are going to grow up. When they get their other players back, they are going to be a lot of trouble.”
Auburn is also getting used to its sixth head coach in seven years. Miller is new to the area, growing up in Oklahoma City and previously coaching at small Christian colleges in Oklahoma, Dallas and Minnesota.
But Auburn has won with new coaches before and the Knights think they can do so again. Given time.
“It was a change at first,” Gray said, “but we bonded with coach really fast. And we love him.”
“It’s a testament to these girls,” Miller said of Auburn’s past success, “always having to adapt to a new coach. They have done a really good job of taking me in. We are all learning. They are learning how to play for me. I am learning how to coach them. It’s going to be a long season of ups and downs. There is not a single day where we are not going to have to focus on getting better at something on the court.”
Waiting for Z
Hononegah’s zone press eats up timid teams. What Auburn may need most against Hononegah — and against other teams — is the return of Zhakyla Evans, who has long been Robin to Brooklyn Gray’s Batman for Auburn.
“We have to have more of an aggressive mindset,” Miller said. “Not be so passive. We are always looking, ‘Where’s the defense and who am I going to pass to?’ When it’s a zone like that, especially a full-court press, we’re just a little too passive right now, not wanting to be aggressive to break that press. As we go along this year, we are going to see more presses and we will get better as it goes along.
“Z is aggressive with the ball. She can score the ball. We’ve got to figure out how to play without her now. We have some other guards who have the ability, they just have to step up and have that confidence. That is something Z has. She has that confidence. She doesn’t let anything faze her on the court. We have to find some other guards who have that confidence.”
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: IHSA girls basketball: Hononegah win shows Auburn 3 things to fix