When the West Springfield girls' basketball team played as a cohesive unit on the court this season, few teams were able to break their stifling defense and hand the Spartans a loss.
In their Northern Region finals match against Oakton on March 1, senior Naomi Ngalle said the team that finally broke down her squad down for their first loss since Dec. 30 was her own team.
"It wasn't even about Oakton," she said. "It was that we didn't play as a team. It wasn't that Oakton had us stranded, it was the fact that we didn't bring a team effort."
Oakton won the Northern Region title by a score of 54-39.
The Cougars, also a strong defensive team, kept the Spartans' skill players in check, forcing West Springfield to find scoring from other teammates.
"We just didn't have other kids stepping up like they should," West Springfield head coach Bill Gibson said. "We didn't bring our A-game to an A-game tournament."
The girls also lacked their usual on-court chemistry.
Smooth passing plays on offense didn't seem to connect with their intended targets, outside jump shots bricked off the rim and the Spartans’ vaunted defense failed to contain Oakton's outside shooters.
At the start of the third quarter, the Spartans suffered a 6:46 scoring drought as the Cougars boosted their lead to 35-23.
"We couldn't really move the ball [during the drought]," sophomore April Robinson said. "We just didn't set up the plays."
Despite a slow start to the third quarter the Spartans did muster a final charge in the game’s late stages.
With six minutes left in the fourth quarter, April Robinson’s three-pointer pulled the Spartans within nine points, and the girls whittled the lead down to three points before giving up a 13-3 run, putting the game out of reach in the final minutes.
"We hit a few shots and then we had defensive lapses," Gibson said of his team's late comeback attempt. "It gave Oakton open looks again to get baskets."
The loss puts a smudge on the Spartans' impressive 24-2 record, but the team will have a chance to contend for the state championship when they open the tournament on March 6 against Osbourn Park.
Frustrated with losing in the region finals, Gibson didn't need a lengthy explanation to convey what his team needs to do on Saturday.
"We have to bring our A-game," he said.