March 09, 2001 11:00 pm

By C.J. Gish

Observer Staff Writer

CORVALLIS If there was one thing that symbolized La Grandes quest for third place, it was the Tigers ability to play defense and make free throws when it


For the third time in four games, La Grandes girls basketball team did just that when it beat the fifth-ranked Astoria Fishermen 47-37 Friday for third place at the OSAA-U.S. Bank Class 3A State Tournament.

The finish was the Tigers highest placing in school history, eclipsing last year, when La Grande placed eighth at the 4A tournament.

Less than 24 hours after falling to Madras in the semifinals, La Grande (21-8) jumped to a quick lead in the first half and used its defense to force Astoria (22-5) into mistakes.

It was nice to see our kids bounce back after last night, La Grande coach Isaac Williams said. We played so hard on defense and it created opportunities for our offense.

Neither team shot well. La Grande finished the contest making just 30 percent (11-of-37) from the field, but Astoria was worse, shooting a mere 20 percent (12-of-60), including 16 percent in the opening half (4-of-25).

The Tigers relied on their free-throw prowess, which was decisive in posting its three wins at the five-day tournament. La Grande, unranked coming into the tournament, connected on 22 of 26 free throws, including a 7-for-9 performance from junior guard Karli Nebeker.

Rebounds were once again not in La Grandes favor, as Astoria grabbed 48 to the Tigers 30, including a 24-6 offensive edge, but Williams said it was the little things that proved decisive.

We got in the passing lanes, got some steals and put good pressure on the ball, he said. We got enough turnovers to get down and score some easy baskets.

The final quarter epitomized the tournament for the Tigers. La Grande held a 33-22 lead and neither team scored until Kimberly Wirth made a driving layup with 6:02 left after Astorias Melody Schauemeran blocked a Shalece Hibbert shot attempt. Astoria would get possession back on the ensuing inbounds play when a jump ball was called and went to the Fishermen. Astoria got two shots off, but neither went in.

After Nebeker missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw attempt, an Astoria turnover led to a Hibbert 3-pointer for a 36-24 lead with 5:13 left.

The Fishermen nibbled away at the lead, pulling within 41-34 on an Andrea Kustura 3-pointer with 1:30 to go, but Hibbert went 2-for-2 and Nebeker 4-for-4 at the line to seal the contest.

For Nebeker, who was plagued with fouls leading to limited play in the opening two games, the fourth quarter was one of redemption.

The free throws at the end of any game are crucial. Im glad to be able to do something to help out our nice finish to the season, she said. It felt good to be able to play. It was frustrating the first two games.

Hibbert had a huge game for the Tigers, tying Kustura for game-high scoring honors at 17. La Grandes defensive stopper hit key shots, including the 3-pointer in the final quarter and one at the start of the second quarter to keep the momentum in the Tigers favor.

La Grande, unlike in Fridays loss to Madras, raced to a quick start, leading from beginning to end. Myer took a behind-the-back pass from Christie Weaver for a layup. Weaver then stole the ball and scored another layup for a 4-0 lead. Myer added a layup and two free throws for an 8-2 edge. Hibbert ended the quarter with a basket and two free throws.

Weaver increased the lead by hitting a 3-pointer and two free throws for a 20-6 lead with 5:31 to go in the second quarter. Astoria got within 20-10 on two Jennie Rummell free throws and a Kustura driving layup, but Myer answered by completing a three-point play for a 23-10 edge. Only three points were scored in the final 4:48 of the half, with La Grande taking a 24-12 lead at the break.

Astoria closed within 30-22 behind a 6-0 run during the middle of the third quarter, but Hibbert completed a three-point play and La Grande withstood the Fishermens only legitimate rally in the second half.

Myer ended with 11 points and Nebeker and Weaver scored seven apiece. Amanda Schuft had eight rebounds and two assists off the bench and Hibbert added seven boards. Nebeker had three assists. Myer had two steals.

Weaver had five rebounds, five steals and two blocks and was named to the all-tournament first team.

For Astoria, Kustura, another first-teamer, paced her team with 12 rebounds, three assists and five steals, along with her 17 points. Wirth and Jennie Rummell had six points apiece.

La Grande girls 12 12 9 14 47

Astoria 6 6 10 15 37

La Grande Nebeker 0-5 7-9 7, Weaver 2-9 2-2 7, Carmichael 1-4 2-3 4, Myer 4-10 3-3 11, Hibbert 4-8 7-7 17, Schuft 0-1 1-2 1, Long, Sternfeld, Williamson. Totals: 11-37 22-26 47.

Madras Kustura 6-22 4-4 17, Wirth 3-7 0-0 6, Koskela 0-5 2-4 2, Schauerman 0-8 1-3 1, Walker 1-3 1-3 3, Salmi 0-2 0-0 0, Brause, Nelson 0-2 0-0 0, Rummell 1-3 4-4 6, Pass 1-6 0-0 2, Berny, Miller 0-2 0-0 0. Totals: 12-60 12-18 37.

Three-pointers La Grande 3-15 (Hibbert 2-3, Weaver 1-4, Nebeker 0-3, Carmichael 0-3, Myer 0-2), Astoria 1-5 (Kustura 1-3, Wirth 0-2). Total fouls La Grande 14, Astoria 21. Fouled out None. Technical fouls None. Turnovers La Grande 23, Astoria 21. Rebounds La Grande 30 (Schuft 8), Astoria 48 (Kustura 12). Assists La Grande 9 (Nebeker 3), Astoria 4 (Kustura 3). Blocked shots La Grande 5 (Weaver 2), Astoria 1 (Schauerman). Steals La Grande 9 (Weaver 5), Astoria 15 (Kustura 5).