COOS BAY — When basketball teams play four times in a season, there are absolutely zero secrets. All the players know the other teams’ plays and strategy, and the coaches know their counterparts.
So is the case with the Blanchet Catholic and Salem Academy girls. The PacWest Conference rivals, with schools less than a mile apart, played the fourth time Friday afternoon. Using a stifiling defensive effort, the No. 5 Blanchet Catholic Cavaliers beat the No. 1 Salem Academy Crusaders 51-39 to earn a spot in the final — Ron Hittner’s first state tournament trip as head coach.
It was just Salem Academy’s second loss of the season. The other was to Blanchet back on Jan. 4.
“Our defense is tough,” Hittner said. “When we come out like that, we’re pretty tough.”
“It feels amazing,” Bailey Hittner added. “We’ve worked this whole season to get to this point. Salem Academy’s a great team, we just followed our game plan. And I’m really proud of our girls.”
Hittner was the two-way star for Blanchet, scoring 14 points and defending Crusaders leading scorer Sydney Brown. Brown still finished with 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds, but until the fourth quarter she was the only effective offensive option Salem Academy had.
Hittner, manned up on Brown, with the goal of merely containing the Salem Academy star and not let her get to her favorite spots. The Blanchet sophomore did just that, forcing Brown back into the middle where the bulk of the Cavaliers defense waited. Blanchet used this method to force 14 Salem Academy turnovers and never allow Aimee Smith or any of the other Crusaders to have any impact.
“We all played our roles really well. I think we all shut her down,” Bailey Hittner said. “Not just me guarding her, but I think it was more my teammates helping and collapsing is what really won the game.”
The man-to-man defense is an identity Ron Hittner has clearly instilled in his youthful Cavaliers.
“We’re a man-to-man team. We’ve never played zone all year. We don’t play zone,” he said. “It’s about swarming and being aggressive. We don’t have the most size, so we have to be the more aggressive team and force teams to do things they’re uncomfortable with.
Meanwhile, Blanchet used its pace to continually score in transition. It helped that it got runouts from steals in the backcourt, but Blanchet isn’t afraid to pull down a rebound and sprint to the rim.
Emily Collier and Sophia Poole were the best at the latter, forcing the issue with drives to draw fouls or score.
Poole was just 2-of-12 for seven points, but her ability to create offensively proved a boon for Blanchet and the effort didn’t go unnoticed.
“She worked hard tonight, kept that team together composure-wise and last night and today,” Salem Academy coach Ben Brown said. “They got the job done and made every shot they took. That was impressive. We’re a good defensive team and to be picked apart like that, to be running around chasing shooters all night — it’s not a good recipe to win.
Blanchet did a good job of interestingly combining up-tempo basketball while also dragging it into the mud. The Cavaliers only scored 13 first-quarter points and put up 10 in the second period but still led 23-14 at halftime.
It took two and a half minutes for anyone to score, and Sophia Poole started it with a 3 after she pulled down a rebound and took it herself.
Blanchet bounced its scoring around with four different players claiming points. Salem Academy got nearly all its scoring from Brown. That was Blanchet’s game plan and Salem Academy knew that. Blanchet just did it well.
“A lot of our offenses come from Sydney at the high post where she can get the collapse and the kick to the shooters,” Brown said. “And they know that, it’s our fourth time playing. They did a great job of adjusting.”
Blanchet extended its lead in the second-quarter to as many as 13 when Kalea Salang banked in a 15-foot jumper from straight on.
Salem Academy scored the quarter’s final four points, all from Brown, to go into the locker room with a modicum of momentum though still trailing 23-14.
It wasn’t to be. Hittner hit 3s on Blanchet’s first two offensive possessions in the second half to give her squad a 29-16 lead, and the Cavaliers never led by fewer than 10 points the rest of the way.
Even when Salem Academy’s offense suddenly found a rhythm in the final period, it was too little too late. Blanchet matched nearly every Salem Academy basket in that quarter, keeping the Crusaders at arm’s length.
Blanchet plays Dayton in the championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday
Salem Academy plays Coquille in the third-place game at 11:30 a.m.