One would think that the season-ending loss of star junior point guard Dashayla Johnson would serve as a crushing blow to the overall psyche of the Tulare Western Mustangs in their pursuit of the East Yosemite League championship.
That's not the case.
Sure, Johnson's absence creates a huge void in the starting lineup, but the Mustangs are still focused on capturing the school's first EYL title since 2001. And if they play like they did Wednesday night in their showdown game against Monache on Friday, the Mustangs could end the week tied atop the EYL standings.
With superb team-oriented play in all facets, the Mustangs doubled up the Mission Oak Hawks 52-26 at Tulare Western.
"This is the way we have to play in order to be competitive," Tulare Western coach Willard Epps said. "I told the team that we're not very good as individuals, but as a team, if everyone does their part, we can be competitive."
Tulare Western (15-5, 2-1) was up 14-5 by the end of the first quarter, and held a commanding 40-20 lead at the end of the third quarter. Over the first three periods, the Mustang defense helped create 24 Mission Oak turnovers.
The Mustangs received outstanding performances from the junior trio of Kayla Cota, Frankie Vasquez and Kendra Wilkerson. Cota, who took over the starting point guard spot with Johnson out, had 12 points while setting up a Mustang offense that was consistent throughout the game. Vasquez and Wilkerson each had a game-high 13 points.
"It was a good game for the girls; a good spirit booster for them. You can't replace a Dashayla, but as a team we can be competitive if we can play together as a team," Epps said.
The Mustangs needed a quality game heading into Friday's contest in Porterville, where they will be trying to snap Monache's 47-game EYL winning streak.
Monache (14-7 overall) is in first place with a 3-0 league mark. Tulare Western and Tulare Union are a game back at 2-1.
Johnson, who broke her left foot during the Mustangs' Jan. 15 EYL opener against Delano, was the Central Section's top scorer at the time of her injury (averaging 24.2 points per game).
The Mustangs were unable to fend off Delano in that game, as the Tigers won 64-57 in overtime. And the Mustangs hardly received an infusion of confidence after barely squeaking by last-place Porterville, 35-33, on Jan. 17.
Wednesday was another story. Tulare Western had several long stretches of crisp execution from the offense -- in particular the play of Wilkerson and senior Melissa Walle (eight points) in the frontcourt.
Mission Oak (9-10, 1-2) missed out on an opportunity to post its first win over a fellow Tulare school in EYL play and possibly emerge as the city's best hope for a league title.
The Hawks, who defeated Tulare Union in a game at last month's Mid-Winter Showcase, gave Monache a real scare on Jan. 17. With the game tied 48-48, Mission Oak had the ball with less than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
But the Marauders made a defensive stop and scored with less than 15 seconds for a 50-48 win.
Mission Oak needs to win four out of its last seven games to earn a spot in the Central Section playoffs for the first time.
The Hawks host Tulare Union on Friday.