LA GRANDE — The La Grande Tigers girls basketball team put themselves in position in the fourth quarter Friday at home to finally put an end to a long losing streak to the rival Baker Bulldogs.
But a rash of turnovers late by the Tigers and the big-game experience by the defending state champions proved to be the difference, as Baker held off every push by the Tigers to earn a 42-35 win in the Greater Oregon League opener for both teams and run their winning streak over La Grande to 11 straight games.
“I think they were a little more relaxed in a big-game atmosphere,” LHS head coach Brian Wright said of the Bulldogs. “Some of our kids were obviously bothered by nerves.”
La Grande fell behind by as much as nine points on two occasions in the second quarter, but the Tigers whittled away at the deficit and got within one on three separate occasions in the second half — at 25-24 on a pair of Ella Dunlap free throws in the third, at 28-27 on a McKaylee Orton 3-pointer with three minutes to play in the third, and at 33-32 on a Dunlap layup early in the fourth.
But the Bulldogs had a response every time. Hailey Zikmund countered Dunlap’s third-quarter free throws with a 3-pointer that ended an 8-0 La Grande run. Lauren Benson had a 3-point play that helped keep Baker ahead by four after Orton’s triple. And the Bulldogs held La Grande to just three free throws in the final seven minutes of the game while forcing seven turnovers in the fourth quarter — most of them in the closing minutes.
“We always start with defense, so we knew that we wanted to put ball pressure on them and see what they did with it,” Baker head coach Mat Sand said.
The defensive pressure resulted in the Bulldogs collecting 20 steals and forcing La Grande to commit 26 turnovers.
The Bulldogs held La Grande scoreless for more than four minutes in the fourth quarter as they pushed the slim margin to 39-33 on a pair of Sydney Younger free throws with 1:18 to play. Camryn Collman countered with two free throws for La Grande to cut the margin back to four, and the Tigers had opportunities to get closer, but a steal and a pair of free throws by Sydney Keller with 36.8 seconds to go made it a six-point game, and La Grande got no closer.
“I guessed (we had) about 25 (turnovers), and you just can’t turn the ball over 25 times, and especially on our last four or five possessions there when we had opportunities,” Wright said. “We were within one or two or three, and then (committed) some turnovers in transition that if we’d have scored totally would have changed the game.”
Sand said the value of having several players with experience from his team’s title run a year ago also played a role in his team being able to hold off what he called a “great” La Grande squad.
“You just can’t replace that, and you can’t teach that,” he said. “It’s about being on the floor, giving yourselves opportunities. We've done that the last four years. It creates an atmosphere in a program and allows the younger kids to embrace it. Having that senior leadership with the experience we have is unbelievable.”
Younger led the Bulldogs with 13 points and also had seven rebounds and five steals.
“She’s a floor leader. She always has been,” Sand said of Younger. “I groomed her all four years for that, and it’s nice to have someone with that kind of experience and that kind of talent at the point guard.”
Jozie Ramos added eight points for the Bulldogs, and both Zikmund and Benson had seven.
Collman, who led La Grande with 13 points, 11 rebounds and three steals, said nerves played a major factor in the contest for her team.
“It was also hard because we were so nervous for this home game,” she said. ”We put a lot of expectation on it, (and) we didn’t come out as strong as we wanted to.”
Baker led almost the entire night. The Tigers battled back from an early deficit to tie the score at 8-8 after one quarter and briefly took a 10-8 lead on a long jumper by Grace Neer to open the second quarter.
Zikmund hit a 3-pointer for Baker a minute later to start a 10-0 run and put the Bulldogs ahead. The margin reached nine before Collman’s late 3 made it 25-19 at the half.
Dunlap added seven points and eight boards for La Grande. Kenzie Williams added six points and six rebounds.
“We were definitely there, we just didn’t execute toward the end,” Collman said. “We’re definitely going to be ready for them in the future.”
La Grande (9-5 overall 0-1 GOL) visits Ontario Friday.