Bring the ball up the court against the ferocious Wood River High School defense and the first thing you see at the top of the zone is the intensity of senior Haillie Taylor. Forget about diving for a loose ball against Taylor. She's got it.
Shoot from wing? Better reconsider. Kaitana Martinez and Hannah Belloli are poised to reduce your options. Try to penetrate or lob the ball inside? Choose differently—posts Haylee Thompson and Cheyenne Swanson are licking their chops and fighting for position.
"Our defense is really important for us," said a weary Taylor amidst happy Wood River teammates and supporters after Saturday's 50-34 victory over Moscow that gave the Wolverines the State 4A tournament third-place trophy at Timberline High School, Boise.
"We want to hold the other team to the lowest points we can. We want them to play at our level, and our level is the best defense we can play," said Taylor, one of the top all-around high school rodeo cowgirls in entire state of Idaho.
Defense was the foundation all season for the Wood River girls' basketball team. The Wolverines held their own with rock-solid defense led by Taylor and seniors Thompson and Swanson until the return of point guard Kaitana Martinez midway through the season.
And then Wood River took off like a rocket, winning its second straight Great Basin Conference tournament and carrying a seven-game winning streak into last weekend's eight-team State 4A tourney.
Bringing all its defensive tools to the challenge, Wood River won two of its three state games by 15-point and 16-point margins. If not for a first-half letdown against Middleton Friday when Taylor was sidelined with fouls, the Wolverines may very well have broken Middleton's two-year winning streak.
As it was, Middleton (26-0) defeated Wood River 56-46 in Friday's semi-final game and extended its winning streak to 49 games Saturday with a 51-35 championship game victory over the Rigby Trojans (22-5).
Middleton senior Taylor Simmons took advantage of Taylor's absence to score 9 of her team-high 23 points in the second quarter when the Vikings out-pointed Wood River 14-4. That 10-point margin held up, although Wood River cut it to 31-29 late in the third period.
Wood River coach Kevin Stilling said, "We lost to a very good team. Middleton is by far the best team we've seen in two years. We scouted them three times, and I believe the game they played against us was the best game they've played.
"They brought their A+ game. They brought everything to the game. And we didn't for a few minutes. Haillie was keeping (Simmons) out of the lane. When Haillie went out of the game with fouls, (Simmons) got in the lane and scored. We scraped away for the rest of the game but couldn't make it up."
Remarkably, leading Wood River scorer Thompson (15.0 ppg, 21.3 ppg state) had the best game of her career against the state champion Vikings. Thompson scored 30 points on 12-for-18 field goal shooting. She made 7-for-11 from the line. With 12 field goals she tied the State 4A tournament record.
Bound for Utah State, 6-1 senior post Thompson may have been the best player of all six divisions and 48 teams in the state tournament. She scored 64 points in three games with 25 field goals, 14-for-17 free throws and 22 rebounds. Her 64-point total was the second highest of all players at state.
Feeding Thompson the ball in the perfect locations against Middleton was Martinez (4 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists). Reluctant to shoot, not feeling it and injuring her finger later in the game, Martinez wasn't a scoring factor. But she did all she could to lead her team.
It was a devastating loss for Wood River, which lost to Middleton 47-33 in last year's state championship game and dearly wanted revenge and another championship game ticket.
Middleton won its fourth state title in five years. During that five-year stretch the Vikings boast a 117-14 record (14-1 at state). The Vikings have now won six straight State 4A trophies and has been to state for nine consecutive years.
Coach Stilling said, "You feel like your heart has been ripped out. In the locker room afterward, we told them you have about 11 minutes left to feel bad about tonight's game. So get ready, look yourself in the mirror and ask, did we play our best? We always seem to play our hardest. We wanted them to channel all their emotions into their final game.
"Only three teams can win their final game. We didn't do it last year. We wanted to end the season with a win. So we watched Moscow game film. We got up early Saturday and watched some more Moscow game film. We viewed it as our championship game and we wanted to be ready."
Defense rules in two wins
It was a memorable state tournament in many ways. Fan support was incredible. Over 800 Wood River supporters wedged into a jam-packed Timberline gym Friday night for the eagerly awaited rematch with the Middleton Vikings.
Thursday's first-round game against Century of Pocatello was the best example of defense. In fact, the Wolverines set a new State 4A tournament record by holding Century to just 19 points for the entire game in their 34-19 triumph. Century shot 13% before half.
Century didn't score for the first seven-and-a-half minutes of the first period. The Diamondbacks didn't score for the first seven minutes of the second quarter. It was 22-5 at half.
Thompson (16 points, 6 rebounds) and Martinez (11 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 7 assists) accounted for nearly all of the Wood River points.
Defense and a positive attitude helped mend the wounds of Middleton for Saturday's third-place game against Moscow. "We wanted to channel our energy into positive ferocity," said Swanson with a laugh at the end of the winning game.
It helped that Wood River stayed at the same hotel as the Madison Bobcat girls from Rexburg. The Wolverines befriended the Bobcats and rooted for them openly in the grandstand earlier Saturday when Madison (17-12) won the consolation title 60-58 in overtime over Skyview of Nampa.
Defense ruled again—and the Madison girls formed a tunnel for the winning Wood River girls to run through.
Wood River held Moscow to 19% field goal shooting in the first half and 22% for the entire game. In the second and third quarters, Moscow made only three field goals. The Bears simply gave up entering the lane because Thompson and Swanson altered their shots.
The Wolverines broke open a 15-15 game with an 11-1 run at the end of the second quarter for a 26-16 halftime lead. Taylor's basket in the lane on a Thompson pass sparked the run, Thompson blocked two shots and Swanson one, and Martinez made four straight free throws in the key stretch.
Thompson (18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks) might have scored another 30 points but she missed a handful of the same close-in shots she made against Middleton. She was mystified at the misses but, as always, focused on defense to get into the offensive flow.
Martinez (8 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 7 assists) was everywhere. Swanson (10 points, 7 boards, 3 steals, 3 blocks) had one of her best games. Taylor (5 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block) brought her best to the table. So did freshman Rory Cole (5 points, 5 rebounds), such a key post player spelling the seniors.
Said Taylor with pride, "After the Middleton game the seniors stayed in the locker room for a while and talked about our dreams and hopes. We came to this game like it was the state championship game."
It was a successful ending for a group of seven seniors—Martinez, Thompson, Swanson, Taylor, Emmalie Dion, Lucy Paisley and Cookie Benson—who all played together on the unbeaten Wood River Middle School eighth-grade team in 2007. In their last three seasons, they won 53 varsity games.
The Wood River team banquet is Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. Final WRHS statistics:
Overall record: WR 15-10 (7-4 home, 8-6 away). Offense: 1063 points (42.5 ppg). Defense: 932 points (37.3 ppg). Close games, big blowouts: This year Wood River was 4-4 in games settled by 7 points or fewer, compared to 8-2 in games settled by 7 points or fewer last season. There were more big wins, though. Eleven of the 15 Wood River victories this season were by an average spread of 18.5 ppg. Individual scoring: Haylee Thompson 376 points (15.0 ppg), 23 double figures, 21.3 ppg at state; Kaitana Martinez 168 points (14.0 ppg), 10 double figures; Cheyenne Swanson 168 (6.7 ppg); Haillie Taylor 118 (4.7 ppg); Hannah Belloli 61 (2.5 ppg); Rory Cole 56 (2.2 ppg); Ciceley Peavey 45 (1.8 ppg). Also, Emmalie Dion 33, Cookie Benson 22, Lucy Paisley 7, Lily Richards 6, Haylee Pettit 2, Samantha Sutton 1. 3-pointers (33): Martinez 14, Taylor 14, Peavey 1, Thompson 1, Belloli 1, Swanson 1, Paisley 1.
WOLVERINE STATE NOTES—Kaitana Martinez finished her four-year Wood River career with 1,059 points in 90 games (11.8 ppg) including 69 double-digit efforts. She averaged 14.0 ppg in her 12 games this season including 10 double-digit games. She finished in second place among all-time Wood River point-getters behind 2004 graduate Natalie Green (1,115) and ahead of third-place 2008 graduate Lauren Morgenthaler (790)....
Haylee Thompson finished with 376 points this season (15.0 ppg) including 23 double-digit efforts in the 25 games. She is now fourth on the all-time single-season scoring list behind Martinez (408) and Green (403 and 387). Thompson finished her three-year varsity career with 780 points, good for fourth place on the all-time list......Leading scorer of all players at state this year was Summit Academy's Savanah Prigge with 74 points in three games including three four-minute overtime sessions against Carey Friday. Thompson (64 points) tied for second place of all scorers with Lapwai junior guard Natahnee Spencer...
After posting a classification record of 36 points in Rigby's 50-42 semi-final victory over Moscow Friday, Rigby senior sharpshooter Alli Furniss looked like a lock to move further up the scoring ladder. But Middleton's defense held Furniss (14 points) to 3-for-11 field goal shooting and 2-for-7 from 3-point land—and the Trojan leader wound up with 63 points for three games. Leading 20-19 at the half, Rigby fell off to 27% field goal shooting in the second half of the championship game and Middleton shot a lofty 58% in outscoring Rigby 32-15 after intermission.....
Last year, Wood River had won eight straight games before its championship game loss to Middleton. This year, Wood River also carried an eight-game winning streak into the semi-final against Middleton.....
National anthem singer Elliot Portillo, 12, and Sammi Brunker wowed the huge crowd before Friday's Middleton-Wood River game at Timberline High School with a beautiful rendition of the anthem.....Tobie, the 33-month-old daughter of coaches Kevin Stilling and Mendy Benson, had to watch the state tournament games laying down, immobilized in a wagon because she broke her leg recently.....
Last year Martinez was the second-highest state scorer with 46 points (15.3 ppg), behind only Moscow's 6-0 junior post Abi Quinnett (52 points, 17.3 ppg). But senior post Quinnett didn't play in this year's state tournament, which hampered the Bears' inside game.....Last year Thompson was the third-leading scorer in the State 4A ranks with 40 points (13.3 ppg). Her season-best 23 points against Bishop Kelly was the second-best individual game in the 4A state meet in 2011.
Like last year, one big factor in the late-season Wolverine success was the team's ability to go to the free throw line with more frequency than iopponents. In the 13 games before Martinez's return, opponents outscored Wood River 236-220 at the line and out-shot the Wolverines 424-358 at the stripe. In the 12 games since Martinez's return, Wood River outscored foes 127-93 at the line and out-shot their opponents 196-191. Wood River's free throw shooting percentage rose from 57% to 65% since KT's return.....Likewise, the team's offensive average rose from 36.2 ppg to 49.4 ppg....
Over the past two seasons, Wood River has prospered by building halftime leads. Last winter, the state runner-up Wolverines led at halftime in 19 of their 24 games, with one tie. In the four games they trailed at halftime, the Wolverines lost all three —40-33 at Jerome, 46-44 at Minico and 47-33 in the championship game to Middleton. They won once after trailing at halftime, 37-36 over Jerome Jan. 20, 2011 at home breaking a long winless drought against Tiger girls' teams. This year, in the 12 games since the return of Martinez as floor general, Wood River led at halftime nine times, and most were healthy leads—by 23, 7, 13, 11, 1, 14, 10, 17 and 10 points. The Wolverines trailed at halftime twice to Burley, winning once, and by 11 points in the state semi-final against Middleton, also a loss....
In 37 seasons of girls' basketball, Wood River has only had 10 winning campaigns—but eight of them have come in the last 13 years starting with now-assistant coach and then-varsity coach J.C. Nemecek's last Wolverine squad, 14-10 in 2000.....Wood River's all-time record since 1976 is 259-495 (.344 winning percentage). This year's 15-10 team had a .600 winning percentage.....In three visits to the state basketball meet, Wood River teams now have a 4-4 record. Prior to last year, Wood River had never won a girls' game at state, having lost to eventual State 3A champ Marsh Valley 55-53 and to Salmon 47-46 during the 2004 state meet at Bishop Kelly.