Immel, Southridge win semifinal prize fight over Grant
In a cauldron of clamorous racket and commotion, the player who probably should have been the most nervous was cool and collected.
Standing at the free throw line with 19.8 seconds left and her young Southridge girls basketball team up just 33-31 on Grant in the Class 6A state semifinals after a brutish final three minutes of the fourth quarter, senior Kaelin Immel's calm right hand came through.
The steady captain cashed in the front end of the one-and-one scenario after the ball hit the heel of the rim and dropped thanks to some well-crafted backspin on the basketball. Then, Immel canned the second attempt, giving the Skyhawks a 35-31 lead.
Natalie Hoff tacked on one free throw to extend the edge to 36-31 with eight seconds left. And, by the time Grant's Nina Radford's subsequent three-pointer rippled through the net, the clock had struck triple zeroes as Southridge escaped with the 36-34 semifinal win on Friday at the Chiles Center.
"Every single player on our team played a part in that win," Immel said. "Every single girl on the bench, every girl that came in for a couple of minutes, everyone that played the whole game. I think that's what can help us win it all."
No. 1 Southridge will face Oregon City in the 6A state championship on Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. It will be their first state championship game appearance since 2010. Junior Maggie Freeman led the Skyhawks with 12 points. Immel had six points and nine rebounds.
"I think we've earned this," Immel said. "We've worked really hard and we just have one more game to go. We're gonna give it all we got."
Immel has made it known she wants the ball with the game on the line and relishes the big stage. Her even-keeled demeanor and unremitting work ethic behind the scenes in preparing for those weighty instances warrants such confidence. So, when Grant put her on the line after the Skyhawks missed the front end of two one-and-one situations just moments earlier, Immel didn't recoil from the magnitude of the moment.
"Honestly, that's just my personality on and off the court," Immel said. "You have to make sure you have the confidence in yourself when you're playing well and when you're not playing well because there could be any moment where you need to make a shot, where you need to do something big for the team. I want to make sure I'm levelheaded to be able to do that."
And with all the noise coming from Grant's student section behind her, Immel embraced the emotion, rather than try to block out.
"I know I can make that shot," Immel said. "I just held my follow through and trusted my shot."
The semifinal bout was a grimy, gritty, trenchant affair in which bodies hit the floor seemingly every other possession, small, but competitively civil tussles broke out and tensions were high. The Generals were rough and hearty, bringing a refreshing physical style of bully ball to the contest and dared the youthful, yet overly talented Hawks to match their physicality. After winning a PIL championship and reaching the state tournament for the first time since 1989, Grant came into the semis with nothing to lose.
"We tried all of our defenses. We played the best defense we've ever played. We played our hearts out. We left it out on the floor," Grant senior Khiarica Rasheed said.
Southridge enjoyed a healthy helping of blowouts during the season including Thursday's quarterfinal rout of St. Mary's. The semifinals were a much different story.
"It was super physical, but we practice hard and learn to play through it," Southridge freshman point guard McKelle Meek said. "We were able to fight through it."
"That was the most physical game we've played in this year," Immel said. "We really responded well."
But in a game where defense ruled and neither team shot better than 38 percent from the field, Southridge sported the difference maker in Brink. The freshman scored eight points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked seven shots and altered at least five more, patrolling the paint with a keen awarness of when to go after the swat and when to stay straight up to avoid the foul.
"Playing for my teammates drives me, it's all for them," Brink said. "It was a real intense game and we just put it all out there."
There was a fiery disposition about Brink as well. The young phenom dove the floor for loose balls, commanded the key with her own brand of blue collar vibrancy and mixed it up on multiple occasions with the Generals' greats like Hickock and Radford.
"She changed the game," Immel said of Brink. "You never see a 6-foot-4 girl get on the floor like that, getting every ball they can, getting every rebound they can, trying to contest every shot. That's huge. That's what gives us an edge. You could see her get fired up. It gets everyone else into it. We all came together in the end and pulled through."
Grant fought through dry spells of offense and kept the fight alive in the fourth. Radford made a three from the right wing that pulled the Generals within 33-29 with 1:33 to go. Then, after a missed Skyhawk free throw, Grant patiently worked the ball around to Hickock who fearlessly cut to the rim, caught the rock and finished as Brink hacked her to the hardwood to bring the PIL squad to within 33-31.
Meek missed the front end of a one-and-one at the other end, but on the ensuing potential Amaya Aldridge's game-tying 15-footer went long and Immel was able to come away with the board amongst a scrum of bodies with 19.9 seconds left. Ultimately, the Generals only shot 25 percent as a team with Radford (3-for-18) and Hickock (4-for-13) struggling to score against Southridge's 2-3 zone.
"You play a little tight. It's a big stage. And credit to Southridge's defense. They had us on our heels a little bit," Grant head coach Kendra Gardner said.
The Generals will play two-time defending South Salem in the 6A third/fifth place game at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.