After dominating last season on its way to a Class 3A state title, the Monroe Catholic basketball team is starting this season right where it left off.
Led by 13 points from junior point guard Scooter Bynum on Thursday, the Rams blew out Houston 44-14 in the opening round of the Cougar Tipoff at Service High to improve to 3-0.
The Rams went 24-1 last season and were good enough to earn three wins against Class 4A teams, including one against eventual Class 4A state champion Dimond. Monroe also suffered a loss to Dimond, but the Lynx needed overtime to get the win.
Six of the team's seven top players are back, but fifth-year coach Frank Ostanik said he isn't sure his new squad can accomplish what its predecessor did.
"It's certainly not playing like last year's team, that's for sure," said Ostanik, who coached the UAF men's team for three seasons. "This group is trying to find themselves. There's no reason for them to feel extraordinarily good about themselves and become complacent, because this group hasn't done anything."
Monroe lost four players, including LaDarius Milton, who is now playing on a scholarship with Eastern Wyoming, a junior college team. Plenty of talent remains, however, with players like Bynum expected to take on a more active leadership role.
"I'm pretty sure if he wanted to be a figure skater he'd be great," Ostanik said of Bynum. "You know, it doesn't matter. Whatever he wants to do, he's gonna be great, just such a great athlete."
The 6-foot Bynum is a graceful player with plenty of range to his shot and a knack for disrupting an opponent's offense. He contributed five steals to Thursday's win and said defense is where success begins for the Rams.
"I'm just trying to step up and be a captain and get everyone talking on D," Bynum said. "The hardest thing about becoming more vocal is knowing who to be stern with and who not to be stern with."
Bynum loves playing for Ostanik, who criticized everything from free throws to the level of hustle Thursday. Following one sequence that involved a loose ball, Ostanik yelled at a player for not diving on the floor to retrieve it.
"He expects the best out of you," Bynum said. "If he knows you can do better, he'll definitely let you know."
Ostanik said he never has to worry about the level of effort exerted by Bynum, who is a regular at optional 6 a.m., practices. Combining hard work with exceptional athletic ability creates incredible potential, he noted.
"He's a better player this year," Ostanik said. "He's really worked."
Monroe will take on Eagle River, at 6 p.m., in Friday's semifinals, with Service facing the Palmer in the other semifinal.
Eagle River 65, Ketchikan 52
Eagle River's Shaquan Rhoades caught fire in the second half to help the Wolves secure a 65-52 win over Ketchikan.
Eagle River trailed 13-6 after one quarter, but came back to lead by two points at halftime. Rhoades scored 17 of his game-high 24 points in the second half, hitting eight free throws in the fourth quarter. Eric Roberts scored 12 for Eagle River, and Hunter Hill hit for 10.
Alex Pihl led Ketchikan with 10 points.
Service 83, Seward 29
Eleven players scored for Service and the host Cougars rolled to an 83-29 win over Seward.
Adam Klie scored all of his game-high 14 points in the first half, Irho Raguindin scored 12 for the Cougars and D'Andre Lampkin chipped in 10.
Michael Wolfe's eight points led the way for Seward.
Palmer 68, Thunder Mountain 44
Palmer's Connor Looney buried six 3-pointers and racked Thursday's biggest individual point total to help the Moose knock off Thunder Mountain 68-44.
Looney finished with 34 points and Brian Selmer tossed in 10 for the Moose.
Ben Jahn led Thunder Mountain with 16 points, to go with 10 from Sam Jahn.
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS