Top-seed Sutherlin next playoff obstacle

by: JEFF WILSON/THE PIONEER  - Madras guard Vanessa Esquivel works on a layup drill while co-coach Zach Lillebo tries to block her shot during practice Monday. The Buffs are off to face top-seeded Sutherlin Friday night.There are those that have questioned the Madras High girls basketball team at every turn this season. But those inside the program have never questioned themselves or stopped thinking big.

And now it's the White Buffalos' turn to turn the questions right back on the rest of the state.

Madras secured a spot in the Class 2A state tournament Friday night, winning a play-in game at Ontario 58-45 behind a huge night from junior guard Mariah Stacona. The win sends the Buffs to Sutherlin for a 6 p.m. Friday showdown with Class 2A's top-ranked and unbeaten team.

Which is just fine with the Buffs.

"It's just another team," Stacona said. "All that matters is how you come to play that day."

The winner of that game moves on to the quarterfinals March 12 at Gill Coliseum on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis. The loser sees its season come to an end.

The Buffs got this point by overcoming a slow start at Ontario. But with a tough defense and a little persistence and 28 points from Stacona, Madras survived and moved on.

"Overall, it didn't matter how we played, we got the win," co-coach Zach Lillebo said.

Stacona added seven assists and five steals while Vanessa Esquivel netted 11 and Kalan Wolfe had eight. The Buffs closed out the regular season with a 64-44 win at Estacada last week. In that game, Stacona poured in 21 points, while Esquivel added 13, Leah Suppah scored 10 and Wolfe had nine.

"It wasn't easy; no games are easy to win," Stacona said. "It was a pretty tough battle but we came out with the win."

Now comes Sutherlin with its 23-0 record and top ranking.

It has height and a group that can run and pose a well-rounded threat. But Stacona said the Buffs aren't too worried about any of that.

She has seen top teams fall before. In fact, she was on the Madras team two years ago that was top-ranked and lost to the eighth seed in the tournament quarterfinals, ending a promising season. So, if any team knows that anything is possible, it is this one.

Not only are the Buffs coming off a solid road win, but Stacona was voted as the Tri-Valley Player of the Year this week while Esquivel received an honorable mention.

"It's a great accomplishment, but I couldn't have done it without my team," Stacona said.

But the focus is not on awards but on winning and advancing.

Lillebo said that if the Buffs make their shots and stick to some pressure defense, anything can happen.

"I think that our girls can compete with anybody as long as our shots fall," he said. "If our shots are falling, watch out."

One advantage that the Buffs have on Sutherlin is playing time.

Yes, the Bulldogs have won all of their games but so many were blowouts that many of the starters saw limited action in the second half.

Madras has a team used to playing 32 minutes a game and expects this one to be close to the very end.

"It's going to be a dogfight. And the White Buffalos are going to come out on top and we are going to end up reaching our final goal which is Gill Coliseum," Lillebo said. "It's been a taxing year. Our girls have overcome so much and no one in the state ever thought Madras girls basketball would ever be in the playoffs.

"I have to give credit to those girls in the gym right now. They have worked their butts off and fought through thick and thin with everything going on in life," Lillebo said. "And gosh darn it, they deserve some recognition. "

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