Subtle changes have permeated throughout the West High girls basketball season since a rocky preseason left the Panthers with a 2-4 start.
Practices became more intense. Goals went from something as routine as qualifying for a spot in the state tournament to something bolder like winning a region title.
"After the preseason, we were tired of losing," said junior guard Marisol Trujillo. "So we had a new attitude and we came into the gym (with it). Every time we came into practice, we had a new attitude."
West ultimately fell short of capturing the Region 6 championship. The Panthers finished a game behind title winner East after losing 55-46 to Highland in their regular-season finale. But the winning attitude remains.
What's more, West feels confident it can avoid a third consecutive first-round defeat when the 4A tournament gets under way this week. The Panthers haven't won a playoff game since dispatching Orem and Spanish Fork to reach the semifinals at the end of the 2003-04 season.
In the words of coach Ronnie Stubbs, his players are "in it to win it."
"Last year's team kind of built the house," Stubbs said. "This year's team is trying to finish it up."
West laid down some mighty fine bricks for that residence with a month-long winning streak. Starting with a 42-35 win over Highland mid-January, the Panthers ripped off eight straight victories to propel themselves into a first-place tie with the Leopards.
You can attribute many factors to West's rise in Region 6.
For one, the team benefits from a deep pool of talented seniors. One senior, Fusi Lutui, is the team's top scorer with 11.6 points per game. Another, Krystal Mascarenas, is one of the top outside shooters in 4A with 44 three-pointers to her credit in 20 regular-season games.
"There's so many seniors, so we all have the same mentality," Mascarenas said. "This is our last year. Let's make it a good year. I think that's pushing us that much harder."
Another building block for West has been its defense. The Panthers allow only 41.7 points per game, giving them 4A's fourth-best scoring defense behind only Olympus, Snow Canyon and Box Elder. West turned up the defensive heat a few degrees during its eight-game winning streak by allowing even less wiggle room for opponents.
In that stretch, the Panthers yielded only 31.8 points per game and held two opponents under 25 points.
West rightly assumed that a dominant defense would be its ticket to the top.
"We have a really tough defense," Mascarenas said. "Our offense is good, too, but defense is what wins games for you, so it's more important to focus on defense, I guess."The Panthers seem to have everything in place for their first deep playoff run in four years. And they also appear to have a solid foundation for upcoming seasons. West's junior varsity and sophomore teams accumulated more than 20 victories between them this year.
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