Lady Spartans headed to State

At the end of the Cleveland/Bainbridge game Thursday night at Bellevue Community College, head coach Penny Gienger was practically breathless.

The tilt was exciting enough for fans, but emotions on the Spartan bench were running especially high -- no one wanted this to the be final game of the season.

“Oh, man,” a smiling Gienger said between hugs from fans, “that was a great game.”

Bainbridge pulled out a gritty 38-35 win over Issaquah Tuesday to stay alive in the playoffs, but in the opening five minutes of Thursday’s Sea-King District 3A playoff game against Cleveland, it was looking like the Eagles had landed.

Cleveland had already beaten the Lady Spartans twice -- a 61-41 win that was Bainbridge’s first loss of the season, and their 54-46 Metro League championship victory little more than two weeks ago.

Bainbridge scored the opening points of the game on two Alice Russell free-throws, but Cleveland ran out a quick 13-2 lead and the Lady Spartans’ hopes for a trip to state were looking grim.

Allie Picha poured in a pair of foul shots, and a Cleveland turnover turned into a fast-break for Morgan Zajonc, who dished to Haley Wiggins for a left-handed layup to bring the score to 13-6.

Then, it was if someone hit fast-forward on the loser-out game, as both teams ran the floor with reckless abandon. Long shots went wide, steals turned into turnovers and fouls, and simple layups were no longer high-percentage shots.

“They’re so athletic, they make you rush,” Gienger said of the Cleveland pressure. “But we’re good at missing those layups, we’ve been doing it all season.”

Russell drained another pair of free-throws and converted on an in-bounds set play to end an ugly, low-scoring first quarter at 13-10.

The game calmed down a bit in the second, with the Spartans taking better looks at the basket before pulling the trigger.

Tiana Gallagher dropped a spinning hook shot to pull within one, and Russell put the Sparts in the lead with another pair of free-throws.

Cleveland opted to push the pace again, but Bainbridge matched tempo and the two teams traded baskets.

Russell, looking as much like a point guard as a six-footer can, put the ball on the floor at the top of the key and froze an Eagle defender on the dribble-drive -- much to the delight of the Bainbridge crowd -- before passing off to Picha.

The sophomore guard missed the layup, but was fouled mid-air. Picha made one, and missed one, before Cleveland’s Ophelia Whitfield sank a jumper to bring the tally to 18-15.

Nakeya Isabell cut through the lane to put Cleveland up by five, but Russell answered by gathering the rebound on her own missed shot and put in a layup.

Picha picked off the Eagles’ inbound pass but walked to negate the turnover. She made up for the gaff, however, by knocking in a spectacular full-speed, off-balance shot from the right side to bring the Spartans back within one.

With the score at 24-21, Zajonc let a three-point shot fly, and tied the game with less than two minutes left in the half. The senior hit a 15-footer from the left side to tie again at 26, but Gallagher fouled Whitfield on a push inside, and the Cleveland junior sank both shots from the stripe to give the Eagles a two-point lead going into halftime.

Picha established herself as a force in the paint in the third period, spending as much time in the air rebounding as on the floor scuffling for loose balls.

Whitfield popped a jumper over Russell, but a Picha-to-Zajonc backdoor play came together to keep the Spartans within two. The tempo picked up again with both teams running and gunning, and Russell’s turnaround deep in the lane and Picha’s driving pull-up jumper tied the game at 32.

The score bounced back-and-forth to 38 apiece, but Cleveland’s Elaina Isabell fired a three-pointer to put the Eagles in front.

Zajonc hit one of two free throws after a hack by Isabell and Wiggins shot for an easy two after Cleveland’s full-court pressure opened up a lane down low.

The most exciting play of the game came with just four seconds left in the third period, when Russell took an inbounds pass from Zajonc and launched a bomb from just inside half-court -- a high, arcing prayer of a shot that hit nothing but net at the buzzer to give Bainbridge a 44-41 advantage, the Spartans’ largest lead of the night so far.

But Cleveland matched the Sparts in the final period, and the score teetered back-and-forth to a 50-49 Bainbridge lead on a Zajonc-to-Russell feed. Zajonc then found a full-speed Wiggins for another pair and Picha bumped the score to 54-49 before Cleveland called a time-out.

A three-point attempt by Isabell drifted wide, and Picha hit Wiggins waiting under the basket for a layup. A charging call on the Eagles left Zajonc lying in the paint -- but with a huge grin and two pumping fists as the clock stopped at 22.7 seconds.

Forced to foul, Cleveland sent Wiggins to the line. She made half of the one-plus-one and Cleveland’s Whitfield popped a pull-up jumper before calling a timeout with 14 seconds left.

Toren Johnson was fouled by Isabell and made one of two to bring the score to 57-52. Isabell fired a final desperation three-point ball, but the shot missed the mark. Picha grabbed the rebound and ran out the final seconds of the game before a throng of Spartans rushed the court -- celebrating what will be their first trip to state since the 1999-2000 season.

“I thought in the second half we played tremendous,” Gienger said. “We came back out and our goal was to win the next two quarters, and we did that. We made some mistakes, but we kept our poise.”

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