When the girls basketball season resumed in the new year, Westminster wasn’t exactly celebrating.
The Owls opened 2019 with a loss against city rival Winters Mill, fell to .500 in county play, and had five wins after nine games. If they wanted to still be playing in March, competing in the postseason, the Owls felt things had to change.
Switching defensive schemes has helped, but senior Zoe Costley said the key to her team’s success has come from within.
“We spent a week preparing for our [playoff] game on Tuesday, but we didn’t feel like we executed very well,” Costley said. “So, our practice [Wednesday] we just focused on simplicity. Instead of focusing on other teams, focusing on us.”
Westminster reached Thursday’s Class 3A West Section 1 final against Rockville after posting a 20-point victory against Magruder two days earlier. The Owls proved their preparation meant something in another convincing win, this one 54-37 over the Rams, to earn a spot in the regional championship game.
Sophomore forward Sophia Diehl had a game-high 20 points, and Costley added 14 while collecting 10 rebounds. Westminster (18-6) won with size and a pesky 3-2 zone defense that gave Rockvile fits for most of the evening.
Since their 5-4 start, the Owls are 13-2. And Diehl said favoring the zone is one of the biggest reasons why.
“Defense is offense, that’s what our coaches say, and that’s what we’ve really been trying to hone in on,” said Diehl, who grabbed seven rebounds.
With Diehl and Costley down low, Westminster possesses a formidable frontcourt duo. Both are solid around the rim, but the forwards agreed their defensive assignments many times are more critical to the team’s ability to extend leads.
That’s what happened in stretches Thursday — the Owls led 18-10 after the first quarter, with Costley netting six points and Rockville (13-10) shooting 4-for-16 from the field against the zone. The Rams got going on offense later, with freshman guard Naila Newman leading the way.
She sank a 3-pointer late in the third quarter that cut the deficit to 35-28, and with 5 minutes, 43 seconds to play in the game she canned another one that made it 41-35.
Westminster answered two possessions later, though, when Diehl spotted up from the left corner and sank a 3 of her own.
Diehl also connected on seven of eight free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter to help keep Rockville from rallying. Newman fouled out with 3:26 to go.
The Owls thrived on using Diehl and Costley in a high-low set-up on offense, with guards Jillian Pumputis (10 points, six rebounds), Maddie Olexy (four assists), and Lauren Saltz (four assists) handling the ball and distributing it over the top of Rockville’s smaller rotation.
“It feels amazing,” Costley said about Westminster’s game flow. “When we have that … it felt like no one could stop us. We were all executing.”
The Owls won their seventh in a row, and advance to the 3A West final Saturday to face Frederick. The Cadets are the two-time reigning state champs, having ousted a Carroll County team from the region final in each season.
Manchester Valley tried twice to take out Frederick, but the Cadets prevailed. Now it’s Westminster’s turn, and Diehl and Costley said they’ll have a chance provided they approach that game like they have the last 15 or so.
Owls coach Dave Urban said when his girls play zone but mentally stay in a man-defense mindset, they’re that much stronger as a unit.
“It’s a difference-maker,” Urban said. “You saw tonight, when we did that, we took leads.”