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Mataya Gayle is averaging a team-best 19.7 points per game during River Ridge’s 3-0 start.

The River Ridge girls basketball team is off to a 3-0 start after beating Cherokee on Thursday night, but the Lady Knights are still far from a finished product.

Coach Jason Taylor said River Ridge had front-loaded its schedule in recent seasons with teams like Cherokee and Woodstock to test itself early. With the Lady Knights’ 61-59 win over the Lady Warriors, the are growing with each passing day.

“This has been our best start, at least over the last few years,” Taylor said. “We are still learning, but I feel good about where we are at. I feel good about the style of basketball we are playing.”

With River Ridge being such a relatively inexperienced team, it has shown its youth at times. The Lady Knights were up by 15 points in the third quarter against Cherokee but squandered the advantage because of mistakes with clock management.

“The basketball IQ is not quite where it needs to be yet,” Taylor said. “We were in command of that game, but instead of slowing down in the fourth quarter, it was still foot on the gas, and when the quarter was halfway over, Cherokee had really cut into that lead.”

Though Taylor said the Lady Knights were fortunate to escape Thursday’s game with a win, they did have some solid individual performances. Mataya Gayle continued her excellent start with 15 points, eight assists and five steals. Freshman Kayla Cleaveland added another 15 points, going 3-of-7 from beyond the 3-point line.

River Ridge has been paced by Gayle’s 19.7 points per game this season. She is one of three players averaging double digits so far, along with Allie Sweet, who is averaging 13 points and a team-best 12.7 rebounds, while Sophia Pearl is scoring 11.3 points per game.

“In the first half against Cherokee, we had seven 3s between five different players,” Taylor said. “It is pick your poison. A lot of teams are going to try and face guard and take Mataya out of the game. That is fine. There are four other players out there who are more than capable of putting up points.”

Rebounding has been another key component to River Ridge’s success. It opened the season against a challenging opponent in Woodstock and emerged with a 77-71 win behind nearly a 30-rebound advantage.

Second-chance points were crucial as Woodstock shot 55% from the floor compared to River Ridge’s 29%.

Taylor truly believes the Lady Knights could score better than 80 points a game if they could clean up the mistakes. Despite the undefeated start, River Ridge has missed some easy shots and turned the ball over too many times for its 13th-year coach’s liking.

There is still plenty of room for improvement for the Lady Knights, but holding a perennial power like Cherokee to under 60 points is a major step in the right direction.

“We have to continue to compete every day,” Taylor said. “I think our practices are just as, or if not more, competitive than the majority of games we will play. They have to bring that pressure every day. It is the iron-sharpens-iron mentality.”

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