Panthers prevail at Niclai championship

Ray Hamill  The Times

Panthers prevail at Niclai championship

ARCATA -- Like two worthy heavyweight contenders duking it out in a championship bout, the Eureka and McKinleyville girls didn't disappoint in Friday night's Dick Niclai championship game, serving up a thrilling and hard-fought basketball contest at Humboldt State.

For three quarters, that is.

And after that, the Lady Panthers exploited it's obvious inside domination and slowly pulled away for a 47-42 victory.

It was the fourth meeting between these two teams this season, and this was Mack's third win in that series, sending the Panthers into the North Coast Section Division IV playoffs with some momentum.

"Defense was the difference," head coach Brad Warze said afterwards. "That's what really did it in the second half."

Trailing by seven with under two minutes to go in the first half, the Panthers turned things around with a 26-10 run that gave them a nine-point lead just two minutes into the fourth quarter.

And it was senior Jennifer Larson who keyed that Mack run, scoring 11 of her team-high 15 points in a three-and-a-half minute spell late in the third and early in the fourth.

"The last three weeks she's being playing as well as anybody in the league," Warze said. "She's got a nice outside shot, so you have to defend her out there, and if she goes inside, she's so strong she's hard to defend."

The Panthers, as usual, also got another stellar effort from point guard Kaitlinn Solinsky, who finished with 12 points, but whose contribution was far more notable.

"She triggers everything for us," Warze said.

On the opposite end of the court, Eureka's Jenna Ayers was inspirational for the Loggers, with her precision passing, tenacious defense and some pinpoint perimeter shooting.

Ayers, who head coach Kristie Christainsen described as one of the main reasons the Loggers got to the tournament championship game, finished with 10 points, including three 3-pointers.

Ashley Crnich also had a big night, adding 10 points, including two 3s.

Unfortunately for the Loggers, however, there was little of an inside game on display, and despite some nice ball movement, they were ultimately unable to breach a stubborn Mack defensive effort.

"We didn't even look to shoot, and that was the difference," Christiansen said.

Both teams looked well fired up from the opening tip-off, although the Loggers may have appeared too much so, turning the ball over on four of their first five possessions, and managing just five points for the opening period.

Both teams, in fact, were guilty of too many unforced turnovers early on, although the Panthers settled down the quicker of the two and held a 12-5 lead going into the second quarter.

The Loggers, however, took over in the second quarter, with Caelen Graey scoring all nine of her points for the game in that period to lead the charge that saw the Loggers go on a 16-2 run to put them up by seven late in the quarter.

Sara Sundberg also finished with nine points in the loss.

McKinleyville didn't help itself by making good on just four of 11 free throws for the first half, but what they lacked in that department they made up for in intensity to start the third quarter.

And with that, the Panthers battled back to take control of the clash, with Ashley Miller and Ashley Curry both contributing on the inside as well.

Miller finished with 10 points, while Curry added four, including pulling down a pair of offensive rebounds before draining the basket on the team's opening possession. Danielle Hux also had five points in the win.

The Loggers have already secured themselves of an NCS postseason berth by virtue of clinching the Big Five title last week, defeating the Panthers in McKinleyville on the way to clinching.

And with just two seniors on this year's squad -- Ayers and Sundberg -- the league champs appear to have a bright future ahead of them.

Of more immediate importance, however, they also have a playoff game this week, and will likely host.

"I don't think the loss will affect us for the playoffs," Christiansen said. "We're hoping for a fourth or fifth seed."

A fourth seed will give the 20-6 Loggers a first-round bye for the playoffs, but regardless they should host at least one game.

The Panthers (22-7), meanwhile, will face conceivably one of the toughest playoff fields in Division IV, with several top ranked teams to contend with.

McKinleyville, however, should also get to host at least one game.