Banks girls beat Philomath to clinch their third straight trip to Gill Coliseum for the state tournament

Almost nothing surprises Nick Rizzo anymore.

The Banks girls basketball coach has had to make do without one player or another for virtually the entire year, juggling an endless string of injuries ranging from a season-ending ACL tear for senior Aubrey Rue to a separated shoulder for

senior Lexi Chung to a chin gash that required five stitches for

senior Kaylin Vandomelen.

So it was no surprise that Rizzo was completely unsurprised when he showed up for Saturday’s Class 4A state playoff game against Philomath and learned that senior post Samantha Duyck had broken her thumb just hours before tip-off.

“I thought, ‘What else is new?’” Rizzo recalled with a chuckle.

Duyck logged only a handful of minutes while playing with a heavily taped right hand, but

senior Riley Gerlinger turned in a superlative individual performance to help the Lady Braves overcome adversity once again, beating Philomath 59-48 to clinch the program’s third consecutive trip to Corvallis for the Class 4A state basketball tournament.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Rizzo said. “All the ups and downs we’ve had, and we still got through it successfully.

“Sam’s broken thumb kind of summed it up. I looked at them before the game and I said, ‘You guys have faced more adversity this year than I’ve seen in all my years of coaching. Whatever situation comes our way, we’re ready to take it on.’”

The Lady Braves needed that mental fortitude on Saturday as Philomath came charging back from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter, getting as close as 45-41 with four minutes left.

Rizzo, who had been resting his starters for one final push, gathered his team during a time out and laid the situation bare.

“We kind of dug our heels in and I told them, ‘Listen, we’re

going to weather this storm, but when these kids come back in, we’ve got to close this game out,’” Rizzo said. “And when we sent them back in, they were ready. They had all their energy back and they got it done.”

With all of the injuries to her fellow seniors, Gerlinger put the team on her back in the final four minutes, scoring 11 points to help the Lady Braves fend off Philomath’s late comeback attempt.

“Riley had a monster game for us,” Rizzo said. “She had the best week of practice I’d

ever seen that kid have. She

really took on a leadership role, and in the game you could see that she just had this we’re-not-going-to-lose mentality.”

Gerlinger finished with a season-high 23 points and 14 rebounds, marking only the second time this year a Banks player has cracked the 20-point plateau (Gerlinger scored 20 against Madras on Dec. 6).

“Usually our leading scorer has between 10-14 (points), and it’s usually not the same kid who had 10-14 the night before,” Rizzo said of his team’s balanced scoring. “Riley had her breakout game. She wasn’t settling. She attacked relentlessly all night long.”

Kayla Hardie had 14 points for Banks (21-3), Vandomelen scored nine, and point guards Lexi Chung and Lauren Birr combined for 10 assists.

The win came in front of a rowdy home crowd that came to cheer on the Lady Braves as they chased their third straight appearance at the state basketball tournament.

“We came out behind an unbelievable crowd,” Rizzo said. “It was basically standing room only. It was louder and crazier than last year’s (playoff) game. The crowd gave us a big home-court advantage.”

Philomath (18-6) banked in a three-pointer to take an early 3-0 lead, but Banks fed off the energy of the crowd and proceeded to score the next 14 points, taking a 14-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Lady Braves stretched the lead to 24-12 at halftime, and they seemed to be well in control with a 42-29 cushion going into the fourth quarter.

That was when Philomath mounted its late rally, going on a 12-3 run to get back within five points before Gerlinger and the rest of the Banks

starters re-entered and put

the game out of reach.

“Things got really, really interesting in the fourth quarter,” Rizzo said. “We had a couple girls with four fouls, and Riley and Kaylin were gassed because we were already a little thin with the injury to Sam. Philomath put a run on us, but luckily we were able to weather it and then close things out.”

Banks will open state tournament play today with a quarterfinal matchup against La Grande (20-5). That game will tip off at 6:30 p.m. at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis.

“We’re excited. The kids were bouncing off the walls today,” Rizzo said. “You never know how you’ll fare with the bright lights and big court, but the good thing is that we’ve done it before and done well.”

Seven of the 12 players on Banks’ roster have state tournament experience, either during last year’s third-place finish or the Lady Braves’ sixth-place showing in 2011.

“This is definitely an experienced group,” Rizzo said. “All of the seniors were there last year, and a good portion were there the year before.”

That experience will pay dividends in the unforgiving tournament environment.

“You get to the state tournament and it’s different there,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to defend. You look at the scores down there over the years and there are a lot of games in the 30s and 40s. The style of play we’re capable of playing fits very well with making a deep tournament run.

“Who knows how it will play out when all is said and done. There are probably six teams (out of eight) that could bring home the trophy if they got hot for three days.”

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