Wood River desperately needed a defensive stop, and junior Cheyenne Swanson's blocked shot with 22 seconds left in Thursday's Great Basin Conference girls' basketball championship game was emphatic and clean-as-a-whistle.
The packed house in the Hailey high school gym let out a roar at Swanson's block that preserved a precarious one-point lead. And the biggest defensive play of Wood River's best-ever girls' basketball season nailed down a 43-42 victory over the Twin Falls Bruins.
With students holding up signs proclaiming "Our House," Wood River (19-2) finished an unbeaten 12-0 home season and captured the school's first-ever 4A district basketball championship.
It was Hailey's third district title (1980, 2004 and 2011) in 36 seasons of girls' basketball.
Hailey coach Mendy Benson said, "We couldn't have asked for a better championship game and atmosphere. Super fun. Twin Falls is an easy team to get the girls psyched up for, especially at home. As our first goal of the season, we set a goal of being undefeated at home.
"We've been saying 'District Champs' every day to conclude practice for three years. It was nice to put words into action."
It wasn't easy for the Wolverines to earn their sixth consecutive win and improve their record to 7-2 in games settled by seven points or less.
Wood River led 26-17 at halftime, but Twin Falls with its seven seniors went on a 12-0 run ending the third quarter for a 36-32 at the break—led by 6-0 senior post Jazlyn Nielsen, who scored 12 of her team-high 16 points in the third period.
The fourth quarter was an uphill climb for Wood River but the home team's defense remained its biggest ally.
Down three points with 2:47 left, junior Haylee Thompson converted a left-handed drive, from Kaitana Martinez, then Martinez drove the baseline past three defenders for the bucket that put Wood River ahead to stay, 43-42, with less than two minutes remaining.
Swanson had picked up her fourth personal foul late in the third quarter and rode the bench for nearly seven minutes. The 6-0 junior forward finally went back in the game during a time out with 2:10 left and Wood River trailing 42-41.
Normally assigned the tough job of guarding Nielsen, Swanson had a question before she went back in. She asked assistant coach Kevin Stilling if she should go for the block on Nielsen, or just let the senior shoot.
Benson said, "Kevin told me later that Cheyenne said she couldn't get my attention, so she asked Kevin, and he told her, 'I really don't care if you foul out, just play your butt off.'" Swanson added, "He told me to just play basketball, that I would know what to do. It helped. I played with the same mindset that I always play."
Trailing 43-42 with 28 seconds left, Twin Falls mapped out its plan during a time out and Nielsen in-bounded the ball in the offensive zone. She got the ball back, about 12 feet out, and swiveled for the shot. Swanson swatted it away, the third time in the game she had blocked one of Nielsen's shots.
Swanson said in the euphoria after the game, "Before the game, coach asked everybody to write something about how we would feel once we won the district championship. This is exactly how I knew it would feel—the same smell, the same smiles, the same everything, one of the beautiful moments."
Added Haylee Thompson about the feeling, "Incredible happiness, joy and excitement. We've tried to stick to our plan all season and we've achieved a lot of things. I don't feel we've played our best game yet, but I feel that it will still come."
Leading scorer Martinez (17.2 ppg) led the way with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists. Others were Thompson (10 points, 6 boards, 3 steals, 2 assists), Swanson (7 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks), Allie Hesteness (5 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals), Taylor Hayes (4 points, 2 boards), Haillie Taylor (2 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals) and Jade Glenn (2 points).
Despite missing many layups, Wood River shot 41% from the field. "I think for the most part we took good shots, although to me it seemed like we missed 1,000 lay-ups and free throws when it was more like four or five," said Benson.
Thursday's victory, Wood River's fourth in four tries over Twin Falls, gave the Wolverines the preferred top seed from the 4th District for the eight-team State 4A tourney opening Thursday, Feb. 17 at Timberline High in Boise.
Wood River debuts against the Mountain Home Tigers (14-9) Thursday at 1:15 p.m. The Wolverines, making only their second-ever trip to state, and Tigers are newcomers to the grizzled veteran field of 4A teams in the 2011 tournament.
The Wolverines and Tigers are also newcomers to each other, having had two scheduled games canceled by weather this season. Mountain Home made it to state by beating Madison of Rexburg (13-11) by a 54-33 score in a state play-in game Saturday at Burley.
Friday at 6:15 p.m., the winner of Wood River-Mountain Home will play the winner of Thursday's 3 p.m. match-up between Moscow (9-15) and Bishop Kelly of Boise (14-9). The State 4A championship game is Saturday at 6:15 p.m. at The Idaho Center in Nampa.
On the other side of the state bracket is a hornet's nest of voracious and talented teams, starting with reigning state champion Middleton (21-2) and the state's other top team, Rigby (22-0). They meet in Thursday's 6:15 p.m. battle that most observers are calling the real 4A championship game.
Rigby, like Wood River in the midst of a three-year building program under coach Clyde Nelson, won its first district championship in 30 years 42-33 over Madison Feb. 8.
Watching that game, on a Tuesday night no less, was the Middleton team that made the 325-mile trip to scout the Rigby game—and that was two days before they handled Bishop Kelly 64-36 in the 3rd District championship. It was Middleton's 20th consecutive victory.
Thursday's late game pits Preston (20-2) against Twin Falls (17-7). Last year, Middleton (25-1) dethroned Bonneville of Idaho Falls 44-42 in the title game. Jerome took third place over Rigby, and Bishop Kelly won consolation over Moscow.
Wood River has never won a game at state, having lost to eventual State 3A champion Marsh Valley 55-53 and to Salmon 47-46 during the 2004 state meet at Bishop Kelly. That was the year the Wolverines had three players average double figures—Natalie Green, Jessica King and Emily Smith.