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Crusader girls make history

Jesuit beats Clackamas to win its first-ever girls state hoop championship
by: Miles Vance FIRST, FINALLY — Jesuit’s (from left) Jackie Ritacco, Elizabeth Brenner, Claire Stach, Tasha Wilkins and Lauren Butz hoist the school’s first-ever girls state basketball championship trophy on Saturday night.

PORTLAND - Saturday's Class 6A girls state basketball championship game was a tale of two halves, but by day's end, it was nothing but the best of times for Jesuit.

The Crusaders rolled up a big first-half lead in the Class 6A finale against Clackamas, withstood a furious Cavalier rally in the final two periods, and held on to win the first girls state basketball championship in school history by a 42-39 margin at the Rose Garden.

'Getting that first women's state championship for Jesuit is huge. The girls really wanted it,' said Jesuit senior post Elizabeth Brenner, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds in the championship and also won unanimous first-team all-tournament honors. 'I'm just so happy we got this. It's a great feeling.'

'All the hours you put in, the practices, the team bonding. It all comes down to this,' said junior guard Rachel Mendelsohn, who had 15 points and two assists in the finale, and was also named to the all-tournament first team. 'It's surreal. This feeling is unbelievable right now.'

'We've been dreaming of this since the very first game we had, the first practice, and it feels so good to get it done,' added Jesuit senior guard Claire Stach, who had four points, three rebounds and a steal. 'I'm so happy right now.'

The win lifted Jesuit's final season record to 27-1, gave the Metro League champion Crusaders the first state hoop championship in the 19 years since the school first began accepting female students, and also erased the memory of three previous title-game losses, including a painful defeat to Southridge a year ago.

Clackamas, the Three Rivers League champion, saw its season end at 27-2.

As great as Jesuit's win was, it did not come easily, despite what it might have looked like at the start of the game.

Jesuit started fast on Saturday, getting 10 first-quarter points from Brenner, who used her solid low-post positioning and quickness to get around Clackamas star Jen Reese seemingly at will. Along with a Stach jumpshot from the right corner, and a Tasha Wilkins three-pointer set up by Brenner, the Crusaders raced out to a 15-6 lead at the end of the frame.

Shelby Vasconcellos-Mattocks came through with five points for Clackamas in that first quarter, but the Cavaliers hit just 2-of-12 shots in the quarter and struggled to keep pace with Jesuit.

And things got worse for Clackamas before they got better. The Cavaliers were still down nine when Natasha Rowland took a Natalie Myers pass and scored inside to make it 19-10 with 4 minutes, 52 seconds to go in the half, but Jesuit closed the half on a 6-3 run that boosted its lead to 25-12 at the break.

In that stretch, Jean Parker knocked down a free throw, Mendelsohn took a Brenner pass and drilled a 'three' from the top of the circle, and Brenner hit two foul shots with 20 seconds left in the half for that 13-point edge.

As mightily as Clackamas struggled in that opening half, however, the Cavaliers came back just as strong in the remaining two periods. Clackamas, after shooting 25 percent in the first half and allowing Jesuit to hit 47 percent, turned both numbers on their ear in the game's final 16 minutes.

In the third quarter, Stach scored early to make it 27-12, but Clackamas just flat took over after that. While the Crusaders missed all but one of their next seven shots in the quarter and turned the ball over five times, the Cavaliers caught fire.

In the next 3:05 after Stach's basket, Vasconcellos-Mattocks scored inside, Deeshyra Thomas followed with a three-pointer, Reese scored inside and turned it into a three-point play, and Vasconcellos-Mattocks knocked down two foul shots to cut her team's deficit to 27-22 with 4:41 left in the quarter.

The Cavaliers extended their run to 14 unanswered points when Reese scored again from the right block, and Myers hit a pull-up jumpshot to move within 27-26 with 2:29 to go in the third. The Crusaders stopped the bleeding momentarily with a Wilkins hoop in the lane and a Mendelsohn drive in the final minute to make it 31-26, but the momentum had clearly changed.

The Cavaliers kept the pressure on in the final quarter, put together an 8-2 run in the first 2:46 and took their first lead since the opening quarter when Vasconcellos-Mattocks took a pass from Elise Miller and scored on a backdoor cut, was fouled and turned it into a three-point play. By the time the smoke from the Cavaliers' scorching second-half run had cleared, Clackamas led 34-33 with 5:14 left in the game.

But Mendelsohn came back strong, scored on a drive down the right side of the lane, was fouled and completed a three-point play to put the Crusaders back on top 36-34 with 4:13 to go. Clackamas drew even once more, at 36-36, when Myers took an inbounds pass from Thomas and scored under the basket with 3:14 remaining.

Two possessions later, Brenner took a Wilkins pass and scored on a turnaround over Reese, Mendelsohn hit one foul shot with 1:32 remaining, and Brenner hit once from the free throw line with 52 seconds left to make it 40-36.

Reese answered with a three-point play of her own, though, hitting a short jumpshot from the right baseline and adding the free throw to cut the deficit to 40-39 with 41 seconds to play. But Jesuit ran the clock down to 10 seconds before the Cavaliers fouled Mendelsohn, and she hit both her foul shots to push the Jesuit lead to 42-39.

Following a timeout, Thomas inbounded the ball to Miller and she sent it back to Thomas for a long three-point try that was blocked and fell out of bounds with one second to go. The Cavaliers could not get a shot in the air in the remaining time and Jesuit began the celebration of its first girls basketball championship.

'The momentum definitely changed, but we knew we needed to forget about it and go win it,' said junior guard Brianna Dixon, who saw extended playing time in the final after Parker fouled out midway through the third quarter. Everyone 'said they were a second-half team and we knew we needed to stop them. I guess we did that.'

'We knew they were a second half team, but we held on and we stayed strong and we knew we'd get it done,' Stach said.

'Especially after last year, when we had the lead and (Southridge) came from behind and won it, we didn't want that same thing to happen,' Wilkins said. 'We knew what we had to do and we took care of it.'

And the contrast between the end to Jesuit's 2010 season and its 2011 campaign made all the difference for the Crusaders.

'We weren't about to get second again like last year,' Mendelsohn said. 'I'm just so proud of my team and how we played today. Everyone played for each other - that's how it is this year. That's what brought us to this state title.'

'Losing that state championship last year made us extremely determined that was not going to happen again,' Brenner added. 'We were going to get here and we were going to get that first women's championship for Jesuit. Everyone was just determined to not have a repeat of last year. Everyone knew we needed to stick together and play as a team and that's what we did.'

Vasconcellos-Mattocks led Clackamas with 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists, while Reese added 10 points, seven rebounds and two steals.