Montesano rallies to win second straight district championship

An old adage in the sports vernacular is that champions will find a way to win when things are not going their way.

In the 1A District 4 championship girls basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 19, at Rochester High School, Montesano found a way to win.

In the unfamiliar territory of trailing by as much as nine points in the second half, Montesano rallied to take a late lead and hold on for a 38-35 win over the Tenino Beavers, earning the Bulldogs their second consecutive district title in the process.

But for the entirety of the first half, it appeared as if the last thing the Bulldogs would be doing by game’s end would be hoisting up another district trophy.

Montesano (18-1 overall) experienced its lowest scoring half of the season over the first 16 minutes of the game. The Bulldogs scored just 13 points in the first half — six in the first quarter and seven in the second — as Tenino’s defensive game plan focused on stopping league MVP Paige Lisherness.

The Beavers had its two 6-footers in Ashley Schow and Rilee Jones shadow Lisherness whenever the Montesano senior set foot in the paint, denying entry and forcing Lisherness either to get rid of the ball or take a highly-contested shot.

Thanks to its defense, Monte didn’t let the score get away from it early on, trailing 8-6 at the end of the first quarter.

But Tenino (17-6) began to gain some separation in the second quarter, as the Beavers used long outlet passes to get behind Monte’s pressure defense in the front court.

With Monte’s offense still struggling to hit shots, Tenino opened up an 18-9 lead on a Schow bucket with 3:12 to go in the second quarter.

The Bulldogs finally broke double digits when Montesano senior Olivia Young hit a long jump shot with 1:52 left, and later converted a pair of bonus free throws in the final 30 seconds to cut the deficit to 20-13 at the half.

“We had some opportunities, we just didn’t cash in,” said Montesano head coach Mark Mansfield, whose team missed several open and close shots while going 8-for-16 from the free-throw line in the first half. “It compounds itself. We’d miss a shot, we’d get a rebound and miss that and they were able to leak out and get an easy one. So it seemed like we were chasing the game that entire first half.”

After Tenino opened the third quarter on a score in the low post by Alivia Hunter to extend the Beavers lead to 22-13, Montesano ramped up its defensive pressure, which began to get the Bulldogs back to within striking distance.

Montesano went on a 7-0 run over the next four minutes of game time, culminating on a Lisherness score in the paint to trim Tenino’s lead to 22-20 with 3:50 left in the third period.

After a free throw by Tenino’s Abby Severse, followed by a short jumper from Montesano’s Mikayla Stanfield, Schow hit a jumper to put the Beavers up 25-22 with 35 seconds left in the quarter.

But Lisherness, who had been playing with a more aggressive urgency after halftime, was fouled on a drive to the basket and hit the two subsequent free throws to cut Tenino’s lead to 25-24 entering the final period.

The two teams would trade buckets in a fourth quarter that saw four ties through the first four minutes of the period.

Montesano would take the lead when Lisherness drew in the defense at the high post and fed a jump pass to Young, who scored a layup to give the Bulldogs a 32-30 lead with 3:30 left in the game.

Tenino took a 33-32 lead after a Vestal free throw, followed later by a Letts layup with 1:50 left on the clock.

Montesano senior guard Jaiden King then stepped up with a clutch step-through bank shot to give the Bulldogs a 34-33 lead with 47.8 seconds on the clock.

Monte — which went 14-for-29 (48%) from the foul line for the game — hit its free throws when they counted most. Young converted a front-end free throw for a 35-33 lead and, after a Montesano offensive rebound on the missed second foul shot, the Bulldogs had a chance to extend its lead with Vanna Prom stepping to the line.

The junior guard calmly made two free throws in the pressure-packed situation to give the Bulldogs a 37-33 lead with 26.8 seconds remaining.

Vestal hit a short jumper to cut the lead to 37-35 with 14.7 seconds left and, after Lisherness hit 1-of-2 free throws with 9.6 seconds left, Tenino had one last chance to tie the game.

And in the end, there was Monte’s bread-and-butter defense making the plays once again. Stanfield forced the ball to the sideline and made a steal but was called out of bounds, giving the Beavers a desperation chance with 0.4 ticks on the clock.

The ball was inbounded to Schow, who let fly a baseline 3-pointer, but the ball came up well short of the rim.

The buzzer sounded as Montesano players and fans rushed the court in celebration.

Lisherness, who scored just four points in the first half, finished the game with a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 16 rebounds for a Montesano team that outrebounded Tenino 40-27.

The Bulldogs also forced 24 turnovers and held Tenino to just 15 points in the second half.

“Defensively, we turned it on in that third quarter and got right back into it,” Mansfield said before offering an insight into what he told his team in the locker room at the half. “We just told them we need to flush that (first) half and move on. Play like we are capable of and pick up our defensive intensity and just continue to attack the basket and good things were going to happen. And they did it.”

With the victory, Montesano — No. 1 in the WIAA RPI rankings — will likely get a favorable seeding when the regional pairings are announced Sunday, Feb. 20.

In the meantime, the Bulldogs will bask in the glow of adding another piece of district-championship hardware to the trophy case.

“They are all special,” Mansfield said when asked if there are any differences in winning the title this year compared to last season. “The feeling is great. I’m so happy for them. They worked so hard all season long.”

“It was a sense of relief,” said King, who had seven points and five rebounds in the game. “We were down at half but we pushed through to come out on top in the end. … It fells really good. We worked really hard to get here.”

“It feels super good because we’ve had so much adversity this season,” said Lisherness, who immediately raced over to hug injured teammate and high-scoring junior McKynnlie Dalan when the game ended. “It’s just one more step on our ladder to state.”