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VANCOUVER — La Center coach Herm VanWeerdhuizen thought his undefeated team would face a stiff challenge from Elma in the semifinals of the Class 1A girls district basketball tournament.
VanWeerdhuizen was wrong.
The Wildcats bolted out of the gate with a 10-0 run to start the game and led 24-5 at the end of the first quarter en route to an easier-than-expected 68-35 win over Elma Tuesday at King’s Way Christian School. The victory improved La Center’s season record to 21-0 and guaranteed them at least one game at the state tournament.
“The girls played really well,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said. “They came out really focused. I think it was 10-0 before Elma even knew what hit them.’’
The victory advances La Center into the district championship game for the third consecutive year. The Wildcats will meet Montesano at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kelso High School. La Center lost to Montesano in overtime in the district championship game two years ago. The Wildcats avenged that defeat in last year’s district semifinals before defeating Kalama to win the district title.
La Center’s “big three’’ led the way offensively in the win over Elma. Junior guard Molly Edwards had a game-high 21 points, followed by junior post Taylor Mills, who had 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Sophomore Taylor Stephens, the Trico League’s Most Valuable Player this season, chipped in 17.
“When Molly and Taylor and Taylor are hitting like that, it’s pretty hard on the other team,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said.
Stephens said the offensive success was a result of teamwork.
“We won by so much because, we played together as a team,’’ Stephens said. “We made the extra passes and made them quickly, which is hard to guard. And we never stopped. Our three high scorers of the game all were within two points of each other. And we all basically scored off each other.’’
Mills echoed Stephens’ thoughts.
“I think we were able to win by that margin last night because we work as a team on both sides of the court,’’ Mills said. “On offense we executed our plays, looking for the open player. Also, we all crash the offensive boards for second chance opportunities.’’
As good as the Wildcats were offensively, their defense might have been even better.
“They all played great defense,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said of his players. “It was probably one of our best executed defensive nights that we’ve ever had. I was pretty proud of the girls.’’
La Center’s defensive pressure forced seven Elma turnovers in the first quarter alone.
“We like to put a lot of pressure on the ball and our pressure defense was pretty good in this one,’’ the coach said. “You could tell that (Elma) was pretty tired.’’
“We play well on defense when we help each other out and emphasize our help defense,’’ Mills said. “I think our defensive effort was one of our best last night. It’s important that we work hard on defense to prepare us for future games. Our guards always work relentlessly on pressuring other team’s guards making it easier to get steals for other players.’’
Both Stephens and VanWeerdhuizen credited junior guard Bethany Whitten for her efforts wreaking havoc on Elma’s ballhandlers.
“Props to Molly (Edwards) and Bethany (Whitten) for always playing good on-ball defense, which leaves me with the steals,’’ Stephens said.
“Little Whitney scraps and smiles at everybody and then takes the ball from them,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said of the 5-foot-2 Whitten. “I’ve never seen a player with her disposition. She will just smile at you like she’s the nicest little girl in town and the next thing you know she’s got the ball.’’
VanWeerdhuizen also credited junior post Whitley Seter for her defensive work.
“Whitley Seter doesn’t get enough credit for what she does defensively,’’ he said.
VanWeerdhuizen knows his undefeated team has now reached the point in the season when the competition gets stiffer. The Wildcats, who failed to make it past the round of 16 teams each of the past two seasons, were ranked No. 7 in the latest WIAA RPI rankings. Montesano, their opponent in Saturday’s district title game, is ranked No. 5.
“Now, there’s nobody we will play that isn’t ranked in the top 10 or 12,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said.
According to the coach, regardless of whether La Center wins or loses the district championship, the Wildcats will meet No. 2-ranked Lynden Christian the following week at a site to be determined. A win in that game would advance La Center to the final eight of the state tournament. A loss would send them to a loser-out game on the first day of the state tourney.
“Except for bragging rights, the district championship doesn’t make a difference anymore as far as qualifications into state,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said.
Despite improving their season record to 21-0 with the lopsided win, Stephens and Mills said the Wildcats are still grounded in their march through the postseason.
“Our confidence is the same,’’ she said. “We take each game one at a time.’’
“I have a lot of confidence that our team won’t take any plays off and will give it their all every game,’’ Mills said.