Fresh off the first Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 championship in school history, the Del Norte girls basketball team captured its first Dick Niclai Tournament championship in 20 years with a 58-44 win over Eureka in the championship game on Friday in Humboldt State University’s Lumberjack Arena in Arcata.
“It is pretty awesome for the girls to win it,” said Del Norte head coach Justin Clifton.
The Warriors jumped out to a big lead in the first half, and held Eureka at arms length over the final 16 minutes to pull out the team’s first Niclai championship since 1998.
“This team is doing great,” Clifton said. “This season has been all about making history — and it seems like in every game we play we are etching our name into history somehow. It is pretty cool.”
Clifton said he couldn’t believe how many fans made the trip to Arcata from Del Norte to watch the Warrior boys and girls both play for Niclai championships on Friday.
“I was 100 percent impressed with the support that we got from our town,” Clifton said. “It is amazing. We are a sports town. I want to say thank you to everyone that came out to watch the girls and the boys tonight. The girls were shocked when they walked out on the court.The gym was packed, and we had more fans there than anybody else.”
After Eureka jumped ahead 4-2 just over one minute into the game, the Warriors took over.
Del Norte put together a 16-2 run, led by Warrior senior Kaleya Sanchez with eight of her 10 first quarter points coming during the run. Eureka managed to end the run on a bank shot off of a drive with about 10 seconds left, but Bella Stone nailed a long three-pointer at the buzzer from about near half court to push the Warriors in front 21-8.
“After that first quarter we just totally took the life out of them when Bella hit that deep buzzer beater,” Clifton said. “You could tell it just totally took the life out of Eureka. She was probably two or three steps passed half court and she drilled it. The girls just kept up the pressure all night and the bench stepped up huge. Allesha (Lenover) took a huge charge, Kirsten (Brous) hit a big three and also took a huge charge that gave us momentum early.”
Del Nore stayed hot early in the second quarter as Sanchez grabbed an offensive rebound for a put back in the first possession after the break, and Jadence Clifton followed that up with a jumper on the Warriors’ next possession.
Stone grabbed an offensive rebound for a put back with 2:56 to go before halftime to give the Warriors their biggest lead of the first half at 27-9, but Eureka finished the first half strong.
The Loggers put together a 9-0 run, pulling within 11 points before Sanchez wrapped up the half on a traditional three-point play with a layup and a free throw with six seconds left to push Del Norte back ahead by 14 at the half at 32-18.
The third quarter was a defensive battle as both teams struggled to put the ball through the hoop through the first seven minutes.
Eureka chipped away at the Warriors through the first five minutes in the second half, pulling within 10 points.
Clifton answered the Eureka run with a three-pointer in which she was fouled on the play. The Del Norte sophomore knocked down the free throw to convert on a rare four-point play to push the Warriors lead back up to 14 points at 38-24 with 2:55 left in the third quarter.
Del Norte and Eureka both woke up offensively in the final minute, as Eureka outscored Del Norte 5-4 in the final two possessions by both teams to trim the Warriors lead down to 42-29 at the end of the period.
Eureka stayed hot to start the fourth quarter with four quick points to start the period, cutting the lead back to single digits for the only time in the second half at 42-33.
Once again the Warriors had an answer, however.
Stone went right to the hoop for a layup on Del Norte’s next possession, and Sanchez got inside for a bucket to push the Warriors back ahead by 13 with less than five minutes remaining.
Eureka quickly battled back to within 10 points about 20 seconds later, forcing a Del Norte timeout with 4:25 left in the game.
Aleesha Lenover came up big coming out of the break with her only basket of the game on an assist from Sanchez. Lenover then drew a charge against the Loggers on the next possession nd the Warriors lead by at least 12 points for the rest of the way.
After missing the front end of back to back one-and-one opportunities from the free throw line, the Warriors turned things around at the free throw line coming down the stretch.
Sanchez finished with a game-high 25 points for the Warriors.
Stone finished with 14 points and Clifton added 12 points and both sophomore guards were dishing out assists all night long.
“Bella Stone had a big night tonight and Jadence Clifton had a big night tonight,” Justin Clifton said. “They were both close to double-doubles in assists, and Jadence was close to a triple-double again. They played great. Our sophomores dominated the back court, and our senior dominated the front court.”
The Warriors combined to go 6-for-8 coming down the stretch before the Warriors put in their bench for the final 55 seconds.
With the win, Del Norte improves to 21-2 overall this season. The Warriors hope to have secured the top seed in the North Coast Section Division IV Tournament following their third straight win this year over the No. 4 ranked team in NCS Division III according to maxpreps.com. The Warriors were ranked No. 2, less than a point behind St. Patrick-St. Vincent in maxpreps.com’s playoff prediction model prior to Friday’s game.
“I think we are No. 1 unless St. Patrick-St. Vincent comes up with a miracle win against Salesian, who is ranked in the top 25 in the nation. They play (tonight). If they win that game they deserve to be No. 1, but if they get blown out I think we deserve to be No. 1.
“Even if we get the No. 2 we should still get a first round bye and a couple home games. We need to have a couple really good practices next week.”
The North Coast Section will release its postseason tournament brackets on Sunday, with games starting either Tuesday or Wednesday. As one of the top seeds, Del Norte has a good chance to secure a first-round bye.
Reach Michael Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .