The top two teams in the Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 battled back and fourth for the more than 27 minutes on Thursday in Eureka, but the Del Norte girls basketball team put on a sput midway through the fourth quarter to pull away from the Loggers down the stretch for a 63-53 road win in the regular season finale for both teams.
“It was their senior night and they really really wanted to beat us after the last time we played them,” said Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton. “We knew going into it that it was going to be our toughest game of the year just because of the whole situation. After that first half the girls played a lot better, and in that fourth quarter they really played like a championship team.”
After a close first three quarters that featured eight ties and 10 lead changes, the Warriors found themselves clinging to a 46-44 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Loggers started the final period strong with a quick 5-2 run to take a brief 49-48 lead, but Del Norte took over the game from there.
Del Norte called a timeout with 4:41 left in the game and trailing by one point. Warrior senior Kaleya Sanchez battled for an offensive rebound and a putback to push the Del Norte ahead 50-49 and the Warriors never trailed again.
Sanchez hit a three pointer on Del Norte’s next possession, followed by a 15 foot jumper by junior Selene Ledezma with just under two minutes left. Jadence Clifton knocked down a pair of free throws, while Ledezma and Stone went 1-for-2 at the free throw line to complete a decisive 11-0 run.
“We did a lot better on our free throw shotting,” Clifton said. “We either do really well at the free throw line, or we aren’t very good at the free throw line. There is no in between. A lot of it is that our guards need to shoot better from the free throw line. They can knock threes down, but we have to knock free throws down.
“Realistically we would have two more wins this year if we make our free throws. That is what cost us in the South Medford game and the Montromgery game. I’m not making excuses, I’m just saying how important it is. We are getting better at them though.”
That four-minute stretch left the Warriors with a 59-49 lead with just 47 seconds left, to all but wrap up the win.
“Down the stretch we made our free throws,” Clifton said. “We didn’t turn the ball over in the last four minutes and we got stops. We were just doing our jobs. The girls just stepped it up.”
Del Norte jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the game, but Eureka steadily pulled back into the game throughout the first quarter as the Loggers grabbed their first lead of the game with less than 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
The second quarter went back and forth as both teams lite up the scoreboard with six ties and four lead changes in the period alone. The Loggers once again got hot right before halftime, however, going on a 6-0 run in the last two minutes to take a 32-27 lead at halftime.
Clifton drove baseline for a layup early in the second half, followeed by a pair of three pointers by Bella Stone on back-to-back possessions to put the Warriors back in front and they managed to hold a two-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
Del Norte was led offensively by Sanchez with 23 points, while Stone added 18 points for the Warriors. Clifton chipped in 11 points and Ledezma scored 7.
Justin Clifton said it was an all around team effort to pick up a big road win for the Warriors.
“Jadence rolled her ankle. She is OK, but she came out for a few minutes and other girls stepped it up,” Clifton said. “Bella stepped it up and Kaleya stepped it up, which they always step it up anyway. But they really played well. Selene Ledezma had a great game again too. She hit some big shots and Aleesha (Lenover) hit a big three for us. (Maykala) Jackson grabbed a lot of rebounds in the first half. Everyone played well.”
With the win, Del Norte improves to 19-2 overall this season, but more importantly the team finishes undefeated in HDN Big 5 play at 8-0.
“I love it, it was awesome,” Clifton said of the perfect league finish. “We wanted to control our own destiny and we did. It was nice when McKinleyville beat Eureka so that we could claim the league championship at home — that was pretty awesome — but the bottom line is we went 8-0 in league, so we controlled our own destiny.”
With the regular season at an end, Del Norte will kick off the postseason with the annual Nikolai Tournament between the top teams in the Big 5 and the Little 4. As the Big 5 champion, the Warriors will be the No. 1 seed in the tournament for the first time in school history.
Del Norte will play its first game on Wednesday against the winner of the first round matchup between Ferndale and Hoopa. The championship game will be played on Friday.
Although the Nikolai Tournament is mostly for bragging rights, it may well have an impact on Del Norte’s seeding for the North Coast Section Division IV Tournament, which will be released next Sunday.
The Warriors are currently the top-ranked team in the section, according to maxpreps.com’s playoff prediction modle, but not by a lot, and the seeding is not determined by the rankings.
“We need to win our next two,” Clifton said. “In our rating we are number one right now, but St. Patrick-St. Vincent is right behind us.”
Reach Michael Zogg at email@example.com.