Apollos' poise pushes Sunset to Class 6A postseason
The fight never ceased from either side.
At no time did the sense of desperation subside.
Whether Sunset or Lakeridge moved into the Class 6A girls basketball playoff field boiled down to one half of basketball. With the game knotted up 25-25 at halftime after two quarters of hand-to-hand combat and both teams battling to keep their seasons afloat, Saturday's play-in game wasn't about who wanted it most, but who could execute in the heat of chaos.
And with its season on the line, Sunset put together perhaps its best quarter of play in the third, opening up a 42-33 lead on its way to a 55-43 win over the Pacers at Lakeridge High School on Saturday.
The young Apollos — with countless underclassmen in the rotation, led by their two invaluable senior guards Kendsy Carmichael and Delaney Ragan — found a way to win on the road, against an experienced Pacer team that sported seven seniors, in the face of playoff pressure.
"This shows how much we've grown this season," Carmichael said. "We keep stepping up and that's awesome. I'm super excited to go into the playoffs and see how it's all going to play out. I'm excited to have another game, for sure."
The No. 31 Apollos (8-16 overall) will make their fifth straight postseason appearance on Tuesday when they play No. 2 Tigard at 7:00 p.m. at Tigard High School in a rematch of last year's second round clash. Lakeridge ended its season at 11-14 overall and 5-11 in the Three Rivers League. Despite the season-ending defeat to Sunset, this year was a major step forward for the Pacers who didn't win a league game for three seasons but found new hope with Jason Brown as their new head coach. From 2015-2017, Lakeridge won seven games combined. This year alone the Pacers won 11 on top of winning those five league clashes.
"Those seven seniors are a huge part of what we're doing and to see it end after finally finding success for them is tough," Brown said. "But I'm really proud of this team. There wasn't one game this season where we quit. In years' past, that was kind of the M.O. They'd get down pretty far and almost give up. We made a commitment that wasn't going to happen this year and they upheld it big-time."
With Brown at the helm leading the program and senior captains Laura Barton, Maddie Grimes and Sierra Zevenbergen ushering in an elevated level of play, the Pacers paved the way for a promising future.
"The legacy they leave behind is huge," Brown said. "We had a majority of our JV team here. There were a ton of youth (players) here. They all see what we're building and we're are a part of it. Granted, you never want to lose. But to come back after the seasons they've had the past three years and win 11 games and five league games having never won a league game is huge. I'm very involved with our youth program and will continue to be. I think this all going to bode well for the future. We're definitely not done."
Sunset's sense of urgency in the second half seemed to go up another level or two after an oscillating first half between the two teams that had 10 lead changes. In the first half Grimes and Barton both found success pushing the ball toward the paint for straight-line drive layups or contorted acrobatic attempts off the window.
"We were being aggressive and attacking the basket pretty well, which we struggle with sometimes against bigger, physical teams," Brown said. "(Sunset) wasn't as physically imposing as we're used to, but they were quick and pretty aggressive pushing us off the ball a little bit. But, we tried to attack and I love the fact that we never stopped fighting and kept competing."
Carmichael, Ragan and junior Vanessa Lopez were superb for the Apollos, combining for 11 points and four assists in the third while providing seasoned cool-handed ball handling and decision making.
"Throughout this season Vanessa, Delaney and I have all built this really strong chemistry together," Carmichael said. "We were patient, took the shots we knew we could hit and it ended up working out well in our favor."
Lopez sprinted off a back pick and banked home a bullet pass from Carmichael who was stationed across the floor early in the third quarter. Ragan alleviated the Pacers' ball pressure with a tight spin move at the top of the key, drew three defenders in her general vicinity and passed out to freshman Haley Bennett for a baseline jumper to make it 36-31. The Apollos made the multiple effort plays: crashing the offensive glass, hustling after misses and getting on the floor for loose balls that created second chances. Carmichael's three just before the third quarter buzzer was created by Mikaela Byrnes getting on the ground for an offensive board with 26 seconds left in the third, setting up Sunset's final possession and the subsequent 42-33 lead heading into the final frame.
"Everything we do starts with energy," Carmichael said. "We played together for all four quarters — that's what we've been focusing on throughout the whole season — and I think we did that today. We stayed united and didn't get down when (Lakeridge) had their runs. We knew (the second half) could be our last 16 minutes of the season, possibly, so we just put it all out there."
Bennett and Oby Nwokoma, unhailed underclassmen experiencing the win-or-go-home tension for the first time, played a pivotal role in Sunset's second-half upswing. Each freshman scored four points apiece in the third while grabbing a pair of offensive boards. Bennett pounced on an Apollo miss and laid it home to start the fourth to give Sunset a 44-33 lead.
"They totally stepped up today," Carmichael said. "They played their hearts out and being a freshman coming into this game, that can be so stressful. They did awesome. Everyone stepped up and played for each other. Everyone was selfless for sure."
Lakeridge started the fourth on a 5-0 run, thanks in large part to its full-court pressure and fast hands that took the ball away from the Apollos. The Pacer press came up with a steal and Barton sifted through Sunset's defense for two to make it 44-38 with 5:05 to go. Following two Lopez free throws, Grimes got to tin and laid home a bank shot off the glass to bring Lakeridge back within 46-40. Yet, Ragan split a Pacer trap in the backcourt, raced into the open floor and fired a diagonal bounce pass to Kimball for two to extend Sunset's lead to 48-40.
Lakeridge came within 49-43 on a Barton free throw with just over two minutes to go in the fourth. But with Sunset in the double bonus early in the fourth quarter, the Apollos were able to put the game away with six-of-six shooting at the free throw line down the stretch to expand their lead back out to double figures.
Brown credited Sunset for "putting the pressure" on Lakeridge throughout the contest whether it was locking in defensively or attacking the hoop either off the dribble or via well-engineered offense.
"They were more aggressive," Brown said. "At halftime and during our timeouts we talked about how (Sunset) kind of dictated the pace and the tempo of the game. That's something we normally try to do. We just could never get (Sunset) out of that. We'd hit a three and get (the deficit) down to one or two, but you could tell Sunset was driving. It's tough to overcome."
The play-in game marked the final contests for Barton, Grimes, Zevenbergen, Savannah Karagounis, Jenny Li, and Anna Garrison in Pacer uniforms. Grimes had a team-high 14 points while Barton chipped in 13 for Lakeridge. Brooke Clinton chipped in six. Ragan had a game-high 15 for Sunset and Carmichael added 12.