Promising season ends with two losses at the Class 4A basketball tournament

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: ZACK PALMER - Banks seniors Kayla Hardie (foreground) and Lauren Birr react with disbelief as La Grande players celebrate their 49-47 victory in the quarterfinals of the OSAA Class 4A girls basketball tournament last Wednesday.CORVALLIS — It was a cruel end to a sensational season.

Hopes were high that Banks — with a senior-laden roster coming off an undefeated Cowapa League season and making its third consecutive trip to the OSAA Class 4A girls basketball tournament — could break through the glass ceiling and challenge for a state title this year.

But with point guard Aubrey Rue relegated to the bench with a season-ending ACL tear and three other key seniors hobbled by injuries, the Banks team that rolled into Gill Coliseum last week was simply not the same team that ran the table in league play and beat opponents by an average of nearly 20 points per game.

In the end, the Lady Braves lost two heartbreaking decisions at the state tournament, relegating Banks (22-5) to a disappointing sixth-place finish.

“It would have been nice to win a couple games down there, but realistically that was a difficult task with the situation we were faced with,” Banks head coach Nick Rizzo said. “It was frustrating to get there knowing that had we been healthy, the outcome could have been way, way different for us.

“It was unfortunate that we couldn’t show the rest of the state what kind of team we really were.”

All season long, Banks feasted on opponents with ferocious defense and an up-tempo offense built around speed and athleticism, but as the injuries mounted and the roster was whittled down farther and farther, the Braves became a shell of what they once were.

In Corvallis, the Lady Braves were undone by uncharacteristic mistakes — turnovers, foul trouble, missed layups, defensive miscues. It was stunning, for coaches and players alike, to watch as so many things went wrong at the same time.

“It was disappointing for the kids because in my mind, at least until we started to get really banged up, this year’s team was quite a bit better than last year’s team (that finished third in the state),” Rizzo said. “This was a great, great team that didn’t get a chance to show it down the stretch.”

Rue’s knee injury in early January seemed to be the equivalent of rolling a snowball down a hill. Soon afterward, senior point guard Lexi Chung separated her shoulder, an injury that would linger for the rest of the season, and senior post Samantha Duyck broke her right thumb just hours before the Braves’ playoff opener against Philomath, and she played the entire tournament with a thick cast on her hand.

The final blow came on Friday in the tournament’s fourth-place game against La Salle, when senior Riley Gerlinger — the Cowapa League Co-Player of the Year — rolled her ankle in the second quarter and never returned to the game.

La Salle went on to win the game, 48-36, leaving Banks to wonder what could have been.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: ZACK PALMER - Senior point guard Lexi Chung was one of five Banks players selected to the All-Cowapa League girls basketball team earlier this month.“When it was all said and done, I told the kids in the locker room that we could be standing there with a state championship trophy or a sixth-place trophy and I’d feel the same way about them,” Rizzo said. “That’s a tribute to this team. I love these kids. I just wish I could have coached them a little longer.”

Banks opened the state tournament on Wednesday with a thrilling — but ultimately emotionally draining — loss to seventh-ranked LaGrande (22-6).

The Braves trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half before finally rallying in the fourth quarter. Freshman Megan Bunn scored two quick baskets to cut the deficit to 36-34, but LaGrande maintained its narrow lead heading into the final minute.

Trailing 46-44 with 30 seconds left, Banks missed a breakaway layup that would have tied the game, and then the Braves threw away the ensuing inbounds pass from underneath their own basket, forcing Gerlinger to pick up her fifth foul of the game.

LaGrande’s Lexus Miller-Moylan made two free throws at the other end to push the lead to 48-44, but Banks clung to life on a three-pointer by Kayla Hardie with 15 seconds remaining. La Grande converted one of two free throws to make it 49-47 with 8.6 seconds on the clock, and Rizzo drew up one final play for his team.

Junior point guard Lauren Birr brought the ball up court and passed it to Hardie, who was double-teamed on the right wing. With no other options, Hardie kicked it back to Birr, who launched a deep three-pointer at the buzzer.

“Boy, I swear it was halfway down,” Rizzo said of the shot. “From my angle, it looked like it was good. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to pull this off.’”

Birr’s shot rattled inside the rim, then popped out and off the backboard, sending LaGrande into a euphoric celebration and Banks into the consolation bracket.

“That would have been pretty special if that thing went through, but in the end LaGrande deserved to win that game,” Rizzo said. “On that night, the better team won.”

As crushing as that loss was, the Braves had to compose themselves in time to face Junction City (19-7) in the consolation bracket on Thursday morning. While it was far from pretty, Banks mustered a 25-21 victory that assured the team of no worse than a sixth-place finish.

“In the ‘Breakfast Bracket’ anything can happen,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got two teams that don’t want to be there, two teams that wish they were still competing for a state title.

“That was one of the ugliest games I’ve ever witnessed, but at state a win’s a win.”

The victory over Junction City sent Banks into Friday’s fourth-place game against La Salle (24-4), a team the Braves beat earlier in the season.

Banks led early on Friday, but the game seemed to turn when Gerlinger rolled her ankle early in the second quarter.

“The last day was a sad day for Banks girls basketball,” Rizzo said. “Riley goes down with a sprained ankle and I just thought, ‘What else can go wrong?’ It was simply too much to overcome.”

With Gerlinger on the bench, Banks went scoreless over a four-minute stretch in the third quarter, allowing La Salle to build a 33-26 lead. Hardie converted a three-point play with 4:28 remaining to get Banks as close as 38-36, but La Salle scored five straight points to regain control of the game, and then went into a stall offense for the final two minutes.

For Banks’ seven seniors, it was a devastating way to end perhaps the greatest girls basketball season in school history and an unprecedented three-year run of playoff success.

“I knew without even bringing it up to them that these seniors really wanted to leave their mark, because for years and years they’ve always kind of lived in the shadow of last year’s senior class,” Rizzo said. “They really wanted to prove to everybody that they’re a strong group too. They really wanted it.”

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