Strong defense makes St. Pius hard to beat

The St. Pius X High School girls basketball team started slowly this season, but it's hot now thanks to a strong defense.

On Jan. 12, the team from Festus handed coach Aaron Portell a hard-fought birthday present -- a 39-27 win over Windsor. It came from behind for the win after trailing 23-18 in the third quarter. St. Pius chipped away at that lead, ending the quarter behind by two points.

At that point, St. Pius' Alex Linderer knew either team could take over, so she did something about it. With Linderer leading the way, St. Pius turned on the defensive intensity, outscoring Windsor 15-1 in the fourth quarter.

"It was about who wanted it more, and tonight it was us," she said. "We made that statement by picking up the intensity, taking it to them and finishing strong."

Strong defense made it possible. St. Pius created turnovers and converted them into easy layups.

"Our defense, ever since I've been a freshman, has been a catalyst for our offense," she said. "We use our defense to get points."

St. Pius, 10-5 this season, has been defensive-minded since Portell began coaching there, striving to keep opponents under 40 points. He was pleased with the effort defensively against Windsor, especially the turnovers the team forced and the rebounds it grabbed in the fourth quarter.

Linderer, a senior guard, scored her season average -- 18 points -- and added 10 rebounds. Ashley Politte, a senior forward, had 14 points and 13 rebounds. Her two free-throws tied the score 26-26, and her shot from under the basket put the team ahead. Senior guard Brooke Merseal quickly added to the lead that the team didn't relinquish.

St. Pius wants to improve offensively but faces a tough schedule. For instance, Windsor is 9-3. St. Pius held Windsor to only 21 percent shooting, but made just 30 percent.

With six seniors, St. Pius has good chemistry with the players having an "unselfish attitude and working hard, diving for balls when needed and picking each other up," Portell said. "It's a good group to coach."

Linderer, who plans to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia, also scored 18 points in St. Pius' 46-14 victory over Grandview on Jan. 6. She set a school career scoring record with 1,247 points, breaking the mark set by Melissa Collins four years ago. Linderer is skilled at all phases of the game, including rebounding. She also has played for St. Pius in soccer, earning first-team Class 1 all-state honors as a junior midfielder last year.

In grade school, Linderer watched Collins play for St. Pius, and Collins served as a role model.

"When I came to high school, I wanted to model how I saw her playing," she said. "When she broke the record, I thought, 'Hey, if she can do it, I can do it.' The last four years I've been focused on making each year better than the last year, and this year I accomplished what I'd been hoping to do for a while."

Linderer called St. Pius one big family.

"There's a lot of solidarity between classes at St. Pius," she said. "It's not seniors shoving freshman into lockers. ... We're all friends and welcome each other and look to create relationships among all the grades."

According to St. Pius athletic director Kevin Halley, the team "picked up steam going through December" and won the St. Paul Lutheran High School Christmas Tournament in Farmington for the second year in a row.

Linderer broke a record that had stood 30 years before Collins broke it in 2011. The record might not be broken for many years.

Linderer "is a good kid and you like to see those kids recognized," Halley said.

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