Photos by Carie Kuehn/Clinton Herald

Freshman Liz Fish (22) pulls down a rebound at the end of the first half of Fulton’s game against Knoxville in the Cliff Warkins Memorial Varsity Girls Cardinal Classic, which began on Wednesday. Fish had four points, both baskets coming off of a fast break layup in the third quarter.

The Fulton Steamers had a sluggish first half offensively and fell to Knoxville 53-27 in the first round of the Cliff Warkins Memorial Varsity Girls Cardinal Classic in Erie on Wednesday night.

Fulton has dropped four of their last six games, and Head Coach Mike Menchaca is hoping his team can use holiday games to find themselves.

“It’s not us right now,” Menchaca said. “We’re trying to find an identity and I’m not seeing it yet.”

The Steamers were coming into the game a little tired, with illness traveling around the squad.

“We’ve had the flu going around,” Menchaca said. Both Kylee Sweenie and Brooke Huizenga were out last week in Fulton’s win over Orion. “Brooke gave it her best and went in there and played hard, I don’t think she was feeling her best.”

Not to mention Kylee Sweenie and Kearston Norman found themselves in a scary head-on collision early in the game, sending both to the bench and one to the hospital.

“Sweenie is our ball handler,” Menchaca said. “Losing two pretty early like that hurt our passing and ball handling. We’re not the best at that right now, so it definitely depleted us.

“The only positive from the night is that both kids are alright.”

It was a game where nothing seemed to go right for the Steamers. They only put up nine points in the first half, trailing by 21 by the time the second quarter buzzer sounded.

“We were hurting them inside early in the game, early on we were still getting the ball inside,” Menchaca said. Forward Emily Schipper led the Fulton offense with eight points, six of them coming in the first half. “Emily scored a couple of big baskets and then she gets in foul trouble and we had to change the way we played.”

Even out of the halftime break the Steamers struggled to score. It took three minutes to get on the board in the third quarter, with junior Kearra Kohrt breaking the ice with a 3-point field goal. By that time, the Steamers were trailing 42-12.

“Knoxville is a good passing team,” Menchaca said. “They get the ball inside to create outside shots and we just didn’t really have it on the closeouts. I honestly felt that we played hard enough in the second half, but every time we did something we turned the ball over on the next possession. We never got that spurt. We never were able to stop them.”

A pair of fast break layups from freshman Liz Fish and 3-pointers from Brooke Huizenga and Rylee Leitzen rounded out 13 points in the third quarter for Fulton. They still entered the fourth down by 29, the score 51-22 in favor of the Blue Bullets.

“It’s a confidence thing,” Menchaca said about the slow offense. “We didn’t attempt enough shots to win a game, we didn’t attempt enough shots to win a quarter for a while. We’ve got to somehow find our confidence. We have to dig down to our seniors and put a little more on their shoulders.”

The fourth quarter had a continuous clock and was not high scoring for either team, but the Blue Bullets took the final 53-27.

The Steamers struggled the entire game to break a full court press from Knoxville that put a relaxed pressure on their guards. Without a point guard in the lineup, turnover skyrocketed.

“The turnovers over and over again really hurt us,” Menchaca said. “Nobody wanted to dribble—it’s a confidence thing. We talk about making the extra pass but they take that way too literally and it’s then it’s no dribble, no angles. We have to smarten up. We went into the locker room and tried to adjust that. We wanted to use the dribble more and attack but it’s got to be part of the IQ.”

Fulton also got into foul trouble. Knoxville scored 13 points from the free-throw line. Fulton only went to the line three times, going 3-6. All of those were in the fourth quarter.

“We have to get back to playing pressure defense and turning them into those transition layups,” Menchaca said. “We used to get that a lot, and we’re not getting them enough.”

Fulton will continue play in the Cliff Warkins Cardinal Classic the next few days. They face off against Morrison at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and take on Mercer County at 1:30 p.m. on Friday to round out pool play.

While Menchaca isn’t happy with the outcome, he’s glad to be at a tournament like this one. He says it’s the place to learn before jumping back into conference and regional play.

“We have three games, possibly four. We’ll bounce back and hopefully get a win early tomorrow and get our confidence back up,” Menchaca said. “I love these tournaments. I would prefer to come out here and play the best two and three teams right away. That’s why we get here. It’s all to battle test us and get us into regionals prepared.”

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