HERMISTON -- Perhaps the third time will be a charm for the Hermiston Bulldogs at the Class 5A state tournament in Eugene. As expected, the No. 3 ranked Lady Bulldogs punched their ticket to the OSAA/U.S. Bank/Les Schwab Tires girls basketball championships following an easy 63-33 win over the Liberty Falcons in a first round playoff contest Friday at Hermiston High School.
Hermiston (21-5) advances to the prestigious eight-team event Mar. 7-10 at the University of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena. Hermiston will meet the No. 8 ranked Bend Lava Bears (19-5) in a 3:15 p.m. quarterfinal matchup Mar. 7. It marks the third straight year the Bulldogs have reached the tournament. Coach Steve Hoffert's squad is hoping things will be different and maybe they'll avoid a third consecutive opening game loss.
"Our seven seniors don't want to lose again in the quarterfinals and I don't either," said Hoffert, who has led Hermiston to the tournament four of the last five years. "The girls spent lots of time during the summer and fall working on improving their game to make sure they're ready for another successful season. Everyone knows that it's unacceptable to go down there and lose our first game."
Hermiston, the fourth highest scoring team among 37 Class 5A squads, started out a little slow against a very mediocre Liberty (12-14) squad. It was close throughout the first quarter. Following a 7-7 deadlock, the Bulldogs took the lead on back-to-back three point field goals by senior Maloree Moss (16 points, five assist's).
Hermiston led 13-7 after one and with an 11-0 run overlapping the first and second quarters, they extended the margin to double digits on a Moss baseline jump shot, making it 18-7 with 6:39 left in the second. Moss, Hermiston's leading scorer with an average of 18 points a game, later scored on a layup and her 10-foot jumper in the lane helped lift the Bulldogs in front at halftime 26-11.
"We watched film of one of their game's so we knew what to expect," said Moss. "We came out here and played hard to get the win. It's exciting having the opportunity to go to Eugene again. I feel confident that our team will do well there. Most of us have played there since we were sophomores, so I think the state tournament experience factor will help us relax a little bit, even though it's a high pressure type of atmosphere."
The Bulldogs tenacious full court press frustrated the Falcons the entire game. The Bulldogs scored frequently by getting backcourt steals and then converting the scoring opportunities into layups and short jumpers to build the big first half advantage.
Liberty, from Hillsboro, came out strong in the third to try and avoid what was expected to be a blowout win for Hermiston. The Falcons, the fifth place team from the Northwest Oregon Conference, went on an 8-0 run, trimming the deficit to 26-19 and forcing a Dawgs timeout with 5:15 left in the third.
The Dawgs responded and quickly regained the momentum. Jeni Hoffert (Steve's daughter) ignited a scoring surge by firing in a three-pointer and then she scored underneath the basket. Senior Gracie Flyg (seven rebounds, five steals) converted a three-point play and Senior Callahan Crossley (nine pts.) buried a jumper to cap an 11-0 run, making it 37-19 as Liberty called a timeout with 3:19 on the clock.
"We didn't play our best early in the game, we didn't play tough defense and we made some dumb mistakes," said Jeni Hoffert. "We began shooting good in the second half and we started playing better to turn things around. They (Liberty) were a scrappy, physical team that had a tendency to play dirty too at times, but we also fought back hard."
After leading a 43-21 advantage after three, the Bulldogs continued their explosive offensive attack in the fourth. The Bulldogs strong perimeter game, in which they shot 42 percent (8-for-19) from beyond the arc, helped them expand their advantage. A three from the corner by junior Heidi Walchli (seven pts.) made it 46-21.
"This was a great defensive effort in holding Liberty to just 33 points," said Steve Hoffert. "If we compete hard and play as well as we did tonight, then I think we'll have a good chance to win our first game. We'll go into it with a positive mindset and hopefully win a quarterfinal game this year."
The teams traded some baskets and midway through the fourth, Hermiston led 54-29. With less than one minute left, freshman reserve guard Tavin Headings fired in a three-pointer from beyond the top of the arc, making it 63-32. A total of 10 Bulldogs scored in the lopsided contest.
"Getting back to state is what we've wanted to do since the end of last season and it's a good feeling to accomplish our goal," said Jeni Hoffert. "We were well focused on getting there and now we hope to finish higher than we did last year."
The two-time Columbia River Conference champion Bulldogs have won the fourth place trophy two straight years. The Dawgs have lots of momentum now with 14 straight victories. Bend, the Intermountain Conference champion, has won 13 straight, but one streak will end Wednesday.
"I hope our win streak continues so that we'll be able to play in the championship game next Saturday (Mar.10)," said Moss. "We're going to have to work hard to make it to the finals. We have to come out and win our first game and that's what we're focusing on."
Hermiston 63, Liberty 33
Hermiston 13 13 17 20 - 63
Liberty 7 4 10 12 - 33
Hermiston (63) - Maloree Moss 16, Jeni Hoffert 13, Heidi Walchli 7, Gracie Flyg 5, Andrea Waters 3, Marissa Crowe 5, Tavin Headings 3, Cheyanne Lawson 1, McKenzie Byrd 1.
Liberty (33) - Emily Flinn 11, Lena Legate 5, Kylie Wruble 4, Alex Flores 4, McKenzie Oster 2, Brittany Giesbers 4, Criselda Lopez 1, Hannah Langbehn 2.