SUTHERLIN -- Few teams know more about how difficult it is to finish an undefeated year than Sutherlin.

The past two seasons, the Bulldogs girls basketball team sat in a similar spot to the one they're currently in: ranked No. 1 and undefeated, having hardly been tested in the final month of the regular season. Each season, though, the Bulldogs were tripped up. Last year it was in the state semifinals. The year before, the final.

Sutherlin coach Josh Grotting said he didn't feel like his team was playing its best leading up to the state tournament last season. Even though the Bulldogs rebounded to take third place, he said the semifinal loss to La Grande has been the carrot that's energized his players this season.

The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (23-0) will begin the Class 4A playoffs at 7 p.m. today against Madras.

The Bulldogs have continued to excel in the regular season -- they've now won 71 straight games -- and even though they haven't played since Feb. 21, Grotting said he feels like the team is trending upward.

"It actually felt like we were getting better each time we came out on the floor," he said, talking about Sutherlin's final two games of the regular season, a 71-25 victory over Marshfield and a 67-26 win at Douglas.

Sutherlin enters the playoffs undefeated because of its defense. The Bulldogs don't have anyone averaging more than 10 points per game, so the defense fills the role of the star on the relatively faceless team.

Grotting admits he's never had a group like this. His players are unselfish, and they relish in playing stingy defense. Sutherlin is outscoring opponents by 29 points per game, holding them to an average of 27.4 points per game. Only once this season has a team scored more than 38 points on the Bulldogs.

"We have more pride in that than anything," Grotting said. "Defense is the one thing we challenge them in."

Sutherlin's first test will be against Madras (16-9). Led by point guard Mariah Stacona, the White Buffaloes play a fast-paced game that Grotting calls a clash of styles with his team's slower, methodical game.

If there's one thing Sutherlin has gotten good at, though, it's compartmentalizing the baggage that comes with a big winning streak. Almost every player on the roster was part of last year's streak, so handling a bit of playoff pressure isn't anything new.

"Our biggest thing is trying to keep it as normal as possible," Grotting said. "It's still a basketball game regardless of when you're playing."

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