PORTLAND – Two months ago, Sheldon’s girls basketball team didn’t resemble anything close to a state contender when it got rolled by 20 points at Grants Pass.
As it turned out, though, that defeat became a turning point for the Irish, who got their act together and cruised through the Southwest Conference, a run that included 15- and 22-point wins over Grants Pass.
“The kids got a new energy and a new focus, and we haven’t lost since,” Sheldon coach Brian Brancato said.
The seventh-seeded Irish provided a dramatic example of their improvement Thursday night when they willed themselves to a 45-41 over No. 2 Tigard in the quarterfinals of the OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union 6A tournament at the Chiles Center.
Sheldon (24-4) extended its winning streak to 13 games in a game that didn’t look anything like when the Irish lost 69-51 at Tigard on Dec. 4.
“We’ve improved a lot over the whole season,” Irish junior guard Aly Mirabile said. “The team when we first played Tigard is completely different. We’ve all grown so much over the season. Everyone plays for each other, and we don’t quit.”
Sheldon will make its first semifinal appearance in four years Friday night when it meets No. 3 Benson. The Irish have never played in the state championship game.
“It’s special for this group,” Brancato said. “It’s a senior group that I’ve had with me – I was their sixth-grade coach. For them to get up here and have some success, they buy into what we’re doing.”
Sheldon trailed Tigard 21-17 at half before its defense turned the screws on the Tigers (24-4), holding them scoreless for stretches of five and six minutes after the break.
Mirabile scored four points in a row to give the Irish a 24-21 lead, and later in the third quarter, junior guard Harley Sowers hit a three-pointer to put Sheldon ahead to stay 29-26.
Tigard was within 31-30 after senior post Dani Lyons scored on a spin move midway through the fourth quarter, but the Irish scored the next six points to lead 37-30 with 1:45 left. The biggest play during that stretch was a steal-and-score by junior guard Makayla Scurlock that opened a five-point lead.
“At that moment, I knew I had to lock in on defense and make something happen,” Scurlock said. “I saw the ball coming and I just went for it. I thought it was a little risky at first, but once I got the ball, I was like, ‘All right, I can do this,' and I was able to finish it.”
Tigard wouldn’t go down without a fight, though, as UC Davis-bound senior guard Campbell Gray kept coming at the Irish. Gray made 7 of 8 free throws in the last 1:36, drawing her team within two points with 46 and 34 seconds remaining. Both times, though, Sheldon sophomore guard Olivia Pierzina answered by making a pair of free throws.
“I tell you, she’s a sophomore, and I was trying to get her to give up the ball, but she said, ‘No way, I’m making them,’” Brancato said. “I was proud of her.”
Tigard closed to 43-41 on a basket by senior Paige LaFountain with nine seconds left, but Irish senior forward Kami Walk put the game to bed by making two free throws with seven seconds to go.
“Definitely a confidence-booster from the last time we played Tigard,” Scurlock said. “We lost by 20 or so, and we knew in this game it couldn’t happen again. Coming here, we just had to get it done.”
The Irish did it with balance. Sowers scored nine points and Mirabile, Scurlock and senior forward Emma Neuman each had eight points. Neuman and Scurlock combined for 15 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass.
Gray had 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists and five steals to lead Tigard. Junior guard Kennedy Brown added 13 points for the Tigers, who shot 34.1 percent, including 1 for 6 from three-point range.
“We just struggled,” Tigard coach Steve Naylor said. “We were kind of discombobulated for a lot of that game. We just couldn’t get on the same page. That’s just not us. Especially unforced errors. I didn’t recognize that team for the first quarter-and-a-half.”