St. Helens, missing several key pieces, struggled to slow the superior height and experience of the visiting Class 6A Spartans.

St. Helens freshman Maggie Cochran takes a shot late in the fourth quarter of the Lions' loss to Hillsboro on Tuesday evening. Though the point spread was more than he'd like, head coach Billy McKinney said the girls competed well against the bigger Spartan players.Yet again, the Lady Lions finished the night staring up at an ugly loss on the scoreboard. This time around it was at the hands of Hillsboro (4-0), but the 58-23 final had plenty of positives.

Head coach Billy McKinney returned to a favorite analogy of his: baby steps.

“It's like this,” he said, shuffling his feet an inch at a time. “Slowly, slowly, slowly.”

From the outside, things haven't looked pretty. A tough loss in the opener to Scappoose was made worse with the loss of senior post player Lucy Kyle-Milward and followed up with a sluggish 35-11 defeat at the hands of The Dalles on Dec. 13.

McKinney, though, says they've made progress. The first game against Scappoose and the loss to Hillsboro have nearly the same numbers, though Hillsboro is arguably the better side. The Spartans boast three players over 6-foot-one, led by junior post Tarea Green at 6-foot-four.

Oddly enough, the Spartans did as damage from the perimeter than in the paint, taking advantage of the height differential and the short-handed, youthful Lions. Not only was the home team missing the talents of Kyle-Milward, they also were lacking a fully-healthy Rianne Tupper, who played, but at less than 100% due to a bruised thigh.

Poor shooting continues to plague the Lions, a problem far removed from last season which saw St. Helens burn teams from distance. Though the team has yet to come up with a win so far, McKinney has seen vast improvement in the first three games.

“(They're looking) a lot better,” he said. “They're looking more relaxed when they shoot (and) relaxed when they run the offense.”

After a turnover-riddled first half with 14 miscues, St. Helens came out and took far better care of the ball with only seven, but struggled to score. By the game's finish, the Lions had hit just seven of 39 shots, many of which came well after the starters had sat down.

Kyle-Milward will be out at least another week, according to McKinney, with a possible return after the first of the year. Junior Bella Roth has been a standout in the paint for the Lions, and with the return of Kyle-Milward, the team's presence in the post should open things up for the shooters on the perimeter.

“When we get Lucy (Kyle-Milward) back, that's gonna make a world of difference,” said McKinney. “Her height and her length alone will make a difference. (Even) without her, we've done pretty well, I thought.”

The Lions will try to put their defensive effort against The Dalles and their offensive lessons from Scappoose and Hillsboro together into a well-rounded game against Hood River. McKinney expects a solid game against Eagles team who lost their first two games by double digits and will also be playing in the second of a back to back. Tip is at 7:15 at St. Helens High School.

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