COOS BAY — Last winter, Salem Academy entered the Class 3A state tournament as the top girls seed, only to see rival Blanchet Catholic end the Crusaders’ title dreams in the semifinals and go on to win the crown.
The Crusaders were determined not to let it happen again, punching their ticket into Saturday’s final by beating the Cavaliers 48-35 on Friday.
“I’m so excited,” said Salem Academy senior Eva Hardy. “We haven’t been to the championship game since freshman year.”
The Crusaders will meet Dayton in the final Saturday night. They played twice this year, each winning on the other’s court in games decided by a combined three points.
“I think we have a real good shot,” said Salem Academy’s Grace Brown, who led the Crusaders with 14 points Friday.
Hardy added 10 points, including big 3-pointers in each half.
Blanchet Catholic coach Ron Hittner gambled on Brown and Hardy having cold shooting nights when he set up his game plan, focusing on Grace’s older sister Sydney, Aimee Smith and Kirsten Koehnke.
“Our approach was to contain Sydney and Aimee and Kirsten,” Hittner said. “With them, they have so many weapons, you have to take chances. And Grace and Eva stepped up and had good games.”
Salem Academy scored the first five points and never trailed. The Crusaders outscored the Cavaliers 15-3 in the second quarter to take a 29-10 halftime advantage.
“We turned the ball over a little too much in the first half,” Hittner said. “We limited our offensive opportunities.”
Blanchet Catholic had 11 turnovers in the first half, but just five in the second half. And, as they did twice in last year’s tournament and again in Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Clatskanie, they mounted a comeback.
“We told the girls if we could get the lead back down to single digits or 10 points, we’d have a chance,” Hittner said.
Salem Academy led by 21 after Smith scored the first basket of the third quarter, but then Blanchet Catholic had a quick 13-2 run that included 3-pointers by Ana Coronado, Trinity Phipps and Bailey Hittner. Suddenly with still 3:38 in the third quarter, the lead was down to 10.
That prompted a timeout by Salem Academy coach Ben Brown, and the Crusaders settled down and kept the lead from ever getting down to single digits.
“Coach Brown called a good timeout,” Ron Hittner said.
Blanchet Catholic didn’t score the rest of the third quarter as Dayton resumed complete control.
“We just told the girls to be patient,” Brown said.
He was happy for Hardy and Grace Brown to have big offensive games since they do so much else for the Crusaders.
“We always know Eva is going to come with good perimeter defense,” he said. ”She’s also one of our better shooters.”
Grace Brown, meanwhile, had a very specific assignment in the quarterfinal win over Nyssa.
“Grace knew yesterday her role was to take on the big girl from Nyssa (Kierra Hernandez),” he said. “Today, she got some open looks.”
Grace Brown said she is happy to do whatever is asked of her.
“I love it that it’s about my team,” she said. “Everything I have inside, I give to my team.”
Salem Academy beat its rival for the fourth time this year, which is a challenge for anybody, Ben Brown said.
“It was just all gut for the girls,” he said, adding that Blanchet Catholic had the advantage of being familiar with the limelight after last year’s title run.
“Those girls weren’t afraid of the moment,” he said. “Our girls showed they weren’t either.”
“We just played as hard as we could,” Hardy said. “We are so hungry. We are so excited."
Coronado led Blanchet Catholic with 12 points. Hailey Ostby had eight rebounds.
The Cavaliers will try to bounce back Saturday in the third-place game against Rainier at 11:30 a.m.