Falcons' dream season has a nightmarish ending
CORVALLIS - Just over nine seconds and one bucket separated the La Salle Prep from achieving perfection in Oregon Class 4A high school girls basketball.
La Salle had possession with the score tied at 56-all and 9.2 seconds left in Friday night's Class 4A state title game with second-ranked Cascade at Gill Coliseum.
La Salle coach Jared Curtiss drew up a similar play to the one that netted the winning basket at Madras on Feb. 18. If successful a second time, La Salle would be hoisting a state championship trophy for only the third time in program history and the first time since 1984.
But the final 9.2 seconds didn't play out how anyone on the La Salle side could have anticipated.
Cascade's Britneigh Gaetz stepped in front of La Salle senior Kylee Maughan's inbound pass, dashed down the court and was fouled on a lay-up attempt with 3.8 seconds remaining. Gaetz connected on both free throws, and a last-second heave by La Salle senior Brittaney Niebergall fell short.
Cascade (26-2), of the Oregon West Conference, escaped with a 58-56 win and that was that.
It was the first loss of the season for the Falcons, who had already set the school record for wins with 28 and were looking to become only the second team in school history to finish the season with an unblemished record.
'It's a big disappointment considering we went all year undefeated,' Niebergall said. 'We worked hard but a couple of things didn't go our way. We all hate losing, so it's a big disappointment.'
La Salle led most of the first quarter and had a 17-12 advantage after eight minutes. But Cascade dominated the second quarter, out-scoring the La Salle 22-9, for a 34-26 halftime lead.
The third quarter was a back-and-forth affair, until a lay-up by Maughan at the 2:23 mark sparked what turned out to be a 13-0 Falcon run.
Niebergall, who led La Salle in scoring with 13 points, closed the third quarter with a three-point buzzer-beater. Carlyn Chavez and Natalie Schlechter hit consecutive 3's on La Salle's first two possessions of the fourth quarter and Mary Olarte pushed the lead to 53-45 with a lay-up with 5:16 left.
But Lady Luck frowned on the Falcons down the stretch. From that point on La Salle went 1-of-5 from the field, 1-of-3 from the line, and the Falcons turned the ball over five times.
The Cougars, meanwhile, worked their way back into the game by making the most of their trips to the charity stripe. Cascade earned three trips to the line in four possessions and connected on all six attempts to cut the deficit from seven to two. The barrage of free throws preceded a lay-up by Jossalyn Wright at the 1:31 mark, which tied the game at 56.
'It was disappointing not to play as well as we could have down the stretch, after coming back from down eight to having an eight point lead,' said Curtiss.
As to what went wrong over the final five or so minutes, Curtiss said that his team 'took shots that we normally don't take.'
He also pointed to the foul line, where the Cougars made 22-of-24 attempts on the night and didn't miss in the second half.
'The difference was the foul line,' Curtiss said. 'We could not get there and they did. And they connected.
'If they miss one of those, we probably win the game. What can you say?'
Niebergall and senior post Megan Hays were named to the all-tournament team. Hays, who was a quiet 2-of-7 from the field in the championship, led the Falcons with 24 points and nine rebounds in their 61-51 win over Henley in Thursday's semifinal. Niebergall scored 23 points and added eight assists and eight steals in La Salle's 60-51 quarterfinal win over Mazama.
Niebergall said that, while it's exciting that her team set the school mark for wins in a season, it doesn't come close to measuring up to the accomplishment of a state championship.
'It all comes down to the championship,' said Niebergall. 'We definitely accomplished more things than we have in the past, but the championship is what we were focused on, and unfortunately we didn't get it.'
Tri-Valley Conference rival Madras placed third in the tournament, dropping Henley 44-30 in the third-place final, after losing to Cascade 48-38 in the semifinals.
Oregon West Conference champion Cascade finished up with an overall record of 26-2.