The first thing Kaitana Martinez did after the final buzzer was give a heartfelt hug to coach Mendy Benson—her friend and guide as their Wood River High School girls' basketball teams have won 51 games over three seasons.
As the happy fans and students poured out onto the Hailey hardwoods to celebrate Wood River's 37-22 victory over Burley, Martinez started hugging and thanking everybody within range. It was time to celebrate Wood River's second consecutive Great Basin Conference tournament title.
Martinez and her teammates ran through the wonderful tunnel of triumph. She emerged and hugged and thanked some more. Being the honor roll student she is, Martinez quickly deduced that she could more efficiently reach everybody she needed to thank by taking the microphone. So she did.
Then the best girls' basketball player Hailey fans have ever seen hugged and shared absolutely happy tears with her physical therapist John Koth. He had advised Martinez every step of the way during her six months of rigorous rehabilitation from July knee surgery.
Having run out of Wolverine rooters to thank, the delightful and generous Martinez ran over to hug Burley junior point guard Aubrie Vale. Vale was wan and exhausted like the rest of her brave Bobcat teammates after trying unsuccessfully for 32 long minutes to penetrate the fierce Hailey zone defense.
It's tough being Kaitana Martinez, one of the best hoops players Idaho has ever seen. There are a lot of stops to make. But when you think about it, the Wood River fans in the very loud and enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd should have been thanking her for all of the thrills and excitement.
Tuesday's championship game was a perfect example.
Slashing to the basket behind screens set by her teammates, Martinez put the Wolverines on her back and took them for a ride. She scored 12 points during a devastating 14-2 run covering the second and third quarters. It turned a tight 16-10 game into a 30-12 rout.
No wonder the 5-6 senior point guard had a sore back during the fourth quarter. She finished with 17 points—pretty close to Burley's 22 points for the entire game—along with 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 6 assists.
Martinez and her teammates fully exploited a very weary Burley squad (14-12) that made it all the way to the title game one year after finishing dead last in the six-team tournament. Burley needed to win four straight games in five days to make the championship game. The 'Cats ousted No. 3 Jerome (15-7), No. 1 Twin Falls (13-9) and No. 2 Minico (14-8).
Their legs were gone.
During an 11-minute stretch from the second period into the fourth, Wood River's intense defense held the Bobcats without a single field goal.
It certainly wasn't the same Burley team that built a 24-23 halftime lead on uncanny outside shooting before falling 46-41 on the Wood River floor in the first game of the league tournament Jan. 31.
Burley's 5-8 sophomore wing Chelsee Baker had led the Bobcats with a team-high 14 points in that 46-41 loss. Then Baker (16.7 ppg tournament) went on a tear—scoring 16 in a 56-46 home win over Canyon Ridge, 13 in a 46-37 victory at Jerome, 23 in a 60-50 at Twin Falls and 25 Monday night in a 64-60 overtime triumph at Minico.
On Tuesday night back in Hailey, after Baker buried two 3-pointers in the first quarter, she went quiet. The promising shooter made a baseline drive late in the second period then was held without a field goal for the final 18 minutes. She finished with a team-high 9 points plus 8 rebounds, 4 steals.
Burley's slow-footed weariness was evident to everyone.
The Bobcats had been very aggressive in their 4-2 tournament run—shooting 70-for-104 from the free throw line (67%) in their fourth tourney wins. Against Wood River's tough zone and tall posts, however, the 'Cats rarely made it to the free throw line. They shot 4-of-10 Jan. 31 and 4-of-15 Tuesday.
Martinez and coach Kevin Stilling's coaching staff with Mendy Benson, Fred Trenkle and J.C. Nemecek figured out that Burley had lost a step and devised their plan—based on Stilling's main assumption, "we worry about ourselves."
Senior post Haylee Thompson (10 points, 5 rebounds) said, "We needed to play transition defense to stop Burley's fast break. We had to keep from fouling. On offense we started setting screens for KT. Burley's wasn't switching off when we did that. When they did switch, they seemed to be confused about who should pick her up."
Cheyenne Swanson (4 points, 3 boards), Rory Cole (2 points, 8 rebounds), Hannaha Belloli (2 points) and of course the ferocious defender Haillie Taylor (2 points, 2 boards, 2 steals, 7 deflections) were other major contributors to Wood River's seventh straight win.
One of the highlights for Wood River fans came midway through the fourth quarter when Swanson converted a fast break basket for a 35-18 lead—biggest of the game—while being absolutely hammered by three Burley defenders.
A week earlier on the same floor, Swanson had been universally shouted down by Burley fans for a retaliation foul after a very physical Bobcat play. Subsequently Burley submitted video footage of the foul to state officials, and Swanson served a one-quarter suspension in her next game.
Since the return of Martinez Jan. 13, the Wolverines (13-9) have won eight of nine games and averaged 54.4 ppg in that stretch, compared to 36.2 on offense before KT came back. Martinez (16.1 ppg, 1,036 career points) pretty much accounted for the difference in scoring.
Thompson (14.2 ppg), who carried Wood River's offense before Martinez's return, said, "I feel like we accomplished so much—all kinds of leap lists. We came from nothing and felt all the way along like we were the underdog team."
Much of that progress and hanging tough until Martinez returned is to the credit of Thompson, the Utah State-bound post who has scored in double figures in 20 of the 22 Wood River games this season.
To date, Thompson has scored 312 points (14.2 ppg) and become only the fifth Wolverine player in 37 years of Hailey girls' basketball to tally over 300 points in a single season. The others are record holder Martinez (408), Natalie Green (403 and 387), Tara Pyle (347) and Sharon Durham (306).
Having qualified with Tuesday's victory for the State 4A tournament Feb. 16 in Boise, last year's state runner-up Wood River will play its first game next Thursday at 1:15 p.m. at Timberline High School against the winner of Thursday night's 5th District title game between Pocatello (14-9) and Century of Pocatello (8-13).
Despite its less impressive record, Century (38.8 ppg offense) has won three of the previous four meetings with Pocatello (46.4 ppg) this season including Tuesday's 46-37 win at Pocatello that forced a deciding game of the tournament.
Both southeastern Idaho teams had non-conference games against Great Basin foes this season—Pocatello beating Burley 51-50 away and 49-39 at home, and Century splitting with Burley and Minico.
Neither Pocatello nor Century played at state last year—Preston (20-4) coming out of the 5th District before going two-and-out at state.
If Wood River manages to win its opening-round state game next Thursday against Pocatello or Century, the Wolverines would advance to the semi-final where they could meet their opponent in last year's state championship game, the Middleton Vikings.
Middleton (22-0 this season, 24-2 last winter) took its 45-game winning streak into Thursday night's 4A 3th District championship game against the Skyview Hawks (17-5) on the Skyview hardwoods.
The winner of Middleton-Skyview will be on Wood River's side of the state bracket, meeting Madison of Rexburg (14-10) next Thursday at 3 p.m. at Timberline High School. Madison earned its first state tournament trip since 2009, when the Bobcats competed at the 5A level, by beating Bonneville of Idaho Falls (16-8) by a 64-56 score Tuesday.
The Rigby Trojans (19-3), a 66-60 home overtime winner of Madison in the 6th District championship game Feb. 4, have already qualified for state. Set to play next Thursday's 8 p.m. game at Timberline, Rigby awaits the winner of the intra-district playoff Saturday, Feb. 11 at Glenns Ferry between Burley and either Bishop Kelly of Boise (18-4) or Mountain Home (8-13).
Championship game of the eight-team State 4A tournament is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. at The Idaho Center in Nampa. Middleton defeated Wood River 47-33 in last February's title contest.