Freshman Jadence Clifton gave the Del Norte girls basketball team its first lead of the second half with a baseline jumper with 17.68 seconds left to play. Senior Payten Healy then sealed the game with a pair of free throws with 9 seconds remaining as the No. 3 Warriors were able to open their postseason with a 48-44 win on the road over No. 2 Eureka in the first round of the Dick Niclai Tournament on Tuesday.

“The bottom line is that we just beat the third-ranked team in division III,” said Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton. “They are a very highly ranked team and we have beaten them two out of three times this year. So that is something that we can hold our heads high about. I don’t thinks these girls will ever forget that Arcata game, but mentally right now I think they are over it. We have a new approach, and I don’t think we are deflated anymore.”

Del Norte’s defense, a strength of the team all season, came up big once again for the Warriors. Del Norte also got a significant boost due to its free throw shooting, which has been an issue for Clifton’s team all season long.

“We played good defense, we controlled the defensive glass, and we shot 80 percent from the free throw line,” Clifton said.

Junior forward Dennise Horton was a big reason for the improved percentage at the charity stripe. Horton’s post presence allows her to draw more fouls than anyone else on the team, but she had made only 48 percent of her free throws prior to Tuesday’s game. In Eureka, however, Horton was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line. As a team, Del Norte was also perfect on free throws in the fourth quarter, going 7-for-7 in the period to end the game 20-for-25 overall.

“We were attacking, and they had no answer for Dennise. Like I’ve said, she is the MVP of this league. We just kept pounding it in to her and the only way you can guard her is to foul her,” Clifton said. “When they get in foul trouble and you miss your bonus free throws it hurts you; when you make your free throws it really helps you.”

After jumping ahead by seven points early in the second half, the Loggers held Del Norte at arm’s length through a low-scoring third period and held a four-point advantage early in the fourth quarter.

The Warriors, which had scored a season-low 26 points in Eureka on Friday, continued to struggle shooting the ball in Tuesday’s tournament game.

Del Norte missed all 10 of its three-point attempts through the first three quarters of the game but freshman Bella Stone, playing in just her second game since suffering a concussion against Arcata on Jan. 12, opened the fourth quarter with a deep three-pointer just seconds into the period to cut the Loggers’ lead down to 33-32.

“Bella Stone came into the game and gave us a little spark,” Clifton said. “She is back and she is caught up a little bit. It makes us a little bit deeper on the bench. She has got to be the quickest sixth-man coming off the bench, and she is also a threat. She hit a shot tonight from about 27 feet out. We were trying to get over that hump and then Bella came out and hit that shot and it opened Eureka’s eyes that they had to guard her too.”

Eureka answered Stone’s three pointer with baskets on back-to-back possessions to push its lead back up to five points, but fellow freshman Clifton once again made it a one-possession game with a three-pointer from the wing with 6:30 left in the game.

The Loggers once again took a four-point lead with a basket on a post move midway through the quarter, but Del Norte didn’t allow Eureka to score in the final four minutes of the game.

Trailing 44-40 with 3:07 remaining, Justin Clifton dialed up a defensive call out of a timeout that he described as “kind of a trick play,” that paid dividends for Del Norte. Sanchez executed the play perfectly, picking up a steal and coasting to the other end of the floor for a layup to pull within one basket.

Eureka failed to connect after an offensive rebound on its next possession, and Clifton was fouled 80 feet from the basket after she grabbed the defensive board, setting up a one-and-one at the free throw line. Clifton calmly hit both free throws to tie the game up at 44-44 with 1:51 left in the game.

After an scoreless possession by both teams, Clifton gave Del Norte its first lead since the second quarter with a baseline jumper with just 17.68 seconds remaining.

Del Norte’s defense forced a Eureka turnover on the Loggers’ next possession and Eureka was forced to foul Healy on the ensuing inbound play.

Although the Warrior senior was just 1-of-3 from the free throw line, accounting for two of the team’s five missed free throws to that point, Justin Clifton said Healy was exactly who he wanted on the line in that situation.

Healy showed why, rattling in the first free throw before putting the second straight through to seal the game for the Warriors.

“The seniors — Claire Smith and Payten Healy — played phenomenally,” Clifton said. “Payten Healy making those two free throws in the final nine seconds was huge. There was nobody else in the gym that I would rather have the ball in their hands than Payten Healy. She is very clutch at the free throw line, and that comes with senior experience and leadership.”

Although the Loggers held a single-digit lead throughout most of the second half, the first half was a back and forth affair in Eureka. Del Norte held a slim 12-11 lead at the end of a first quarter that featured three ties and two lead changes but trailed 27-22 at halftime after another tie and three lead changes in the second quarter.

Jadence Clifton scored 14 points for Del Norte, while grabbing a team-high eight rebounds in the game. Horton picked up seven rebounds to go along with her 18 points. Healy added seven points, while Stone and Sanchez chipped in 5 and 4 points respectively.

With the win Del Norte advances to the semifinals of the Niclai Tournament. The Warriors will return to Eureka on Thursday for their third straight game in the city, this time taking on the Humboldt-Del Norte Little 4’s top seed, St. Bernard’s.

Del Norte bested the Crusaders 56-33 when the teams met in Crescent City back on Jan. 24.

“They have some good shooters. I remember we came out really hot shooting the ball in that game then we toned it down a little bit in the second half,” Clifton said. “We were just on fire, and the bottom line is we played good defense. St. Bernard’s was having some trouble scoring. They have a good big girl, and they have a couple shooters though, so we can’t take them lightly.”

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com .

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