TEMECULA -- Adversity, for the most part, had not reared its ugly head through the first nine games.
Yes, there was that minor bump in the road in early December, when the Chaparral girls' basketball team overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to defeat well-respected Riverside King by three points.
But last Saturday -- in the finals of the Kiwanis Tournament in San Diego -- was more like a huge pothole.
And the Pumas were playing like they had a flat tire.
"We were trailing (San Diego) Mission Bay by 16 points in the second quarter, and the girls just weren't playing their game," said Chaparral coach Mike Pino, now in his fifth season.
Added Pumas guard Ta'Rea Cunnigan: "If we had been in that same position last year, we would have been in big trouble."
But this year's squad seems to have built-in, road-side assistance to get them out of jams like the one last Saturday.
"This team is more competitive this year," Cunnigan said. "We do not accept defeat."
The Pumas quickly went from flat to flat-out nasty on defense. By halftime, they had cut the deficit to eight points.
"Even if we're down, we still come together, and we don't get mad at each other," said Chaparral junior center Jessica Pino, Mike's daughter.
In the second half, the Pumas really kicked it into another gear.
"We just kept chipping away, a little bit at a time," said junior forward Abigail Johnston.
Said Jessica Pino: "We started breaking their press in the second half, and getting easy baskets."
When the dust had settled, Chaparral had cruised to a 74-64 victory over the Buccaneers for its second tournament championship this season. At 10-0, the Pumas have raced to their best start in school history.
How was this team able to go from chumps to champs in just a couple of quarters? According to Mike Pino, the Pumas' transformation began last August, when he decided to keep the basketballs on the rack.
"We knew we had to come out this year and be a good man-on-man defensive team," Pino said. "That's completely different from where we were last year, when we played mostly zone.
"We also knew if we were going to play this way, we had to be good in our cardiovascular endurance. In order to get to that point, I had to have a well-conditioned team."
So instead of shooting and dribbling, the Pumas spent much of their summer practice time in a defensive stance, bending their knees and shuffling their feet.
They also did plenty of running. And when they got tired, they ran some more.
"Our conditioning is a lot harder than last year," said Jessica Pino, who is averaging 13 points, 6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks through the Pumas first 10 games. "We are a lot better team than last year because of how we're conditioned on the court.
"Now we can go through four quarters of man defense, and still be able to go hard. Last year, there's no way we could go that hard for that long. That's why we had to play a zone defense last year."
Chaparral hardly played like a clunker last season, finishing in second place with a 7-3 Southwestern League record, before being eliminated in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division I-A playoffs.
But Pino wanted to introduce a faster, sleeker model this year.
"We knew that we could apply a lot of pressure if we played good man defense," Pino said.
He wanted more discipline on offense as well.
"We knew from day one that we had to teach them structured, team basketball," Pino said. "Because if you have talent on a team, and you can get them to play structured basketball, that's difficult to defend."
So far, so good. The Pumas' season averages of 61 points per game, 12 steals and more than 12 assists are all up from last year.
Cunnigan, who has committed to San Jose State, has thrived since moving from point guard to shooting guard, averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds and nearly 5 steals per game.
"Our mentality this year when we step on the court is that we can win every game, rather than oh, maybe we have a chance to win this game," Cunnigan said.
Point guard Briana Larkins, a senior transfer from Vista Murrieta, has added a fresh coat of paint, averaging 11.7 points, 3 assists, 4 rebounds and nearly 3 steals per game.
The Pumas hope to keep the pedal to the metal in January, as they attempt to win their first-ever league title.
They hope their recent comeback win will provide fuel for many more wins down the road.
"That game really set the bar for us," Cunnigan said. "It showed us what we're capable of."