HERMISTON — The goal every year for the Hermiston girls basketball team is to conclude the season as a member of the Elite Eight of Oregon’s Class 5A.
The Bulldogs are March Madness participants again this year following a 60-51 first-round state playoff win over the Liberty Falcons on Friday night.
McKenzie Byrd had 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Gabby Heehn added 13 points for the Bulldogs, who qualified for the state championships for the fourth straight year and fifth time in six years under coach Steve Hoffert.
“We have a shot at a trophy,” Hoffert said, “and if you win your first game, then you’ll bring home a trophy, and that’s our goal.”
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Hermiston (16-8) will take the floor at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene on Thursday for a 3:15 tipoff against the winner of today’s matchup between No. 8 Bend (18-5) and Marist (10-14).
This year marks the fourth straight year the Bulldogs have reached the tournament, and they’re hoping to avoid a fourth consecutive quarterfinal loss, including a 49-39 setback against Bend last season.
Friday’s game was a playoff rematch from last year, a 30-point Hermiston win.
“This was two completely different teams from a year ago,” Hoffert said. “They have a more experienced team, and we’re a much younger squad. We’re feeling pretty good about this win. Whenever you win a state playoff game, whether it’s ugly or not, it’s always nice because then you move on to the tournament.”
Hermiston got off to a slow start offensively, disrupted by full-court pressure from the Falcons (15-11). But after mustering just nine points in the first eight minutes, the Bulldogs broke loose with an 8-0 run in the opening 90 seconds of the second quarter to take the lead for good.
Freshman guard Jansen Edmiston, who dished out five assists, hit a pair of free throws for a 13-12 lead, and then Heehn and Byrd converted layups off steals.
“This is such a thrill for me. I’m super excited and I just love it,” said Heehn, a transfer from Pendleton. “It’s definitely the highlight of my athletic career.”
Hermiston built up a 31-23 edge at the half and then opened a 14-point bulge in the third quarter behind the 5-foot-11 Byrd’s work in the lane for three baskets.
Senior Heidi Walchli, who added 10 points for the Bulldogs, said her team will have to play its best going forward.
“The games won’t get any easier from now on in the tournament, but I sure hope our (10-game) win streak will continue,” she said. “It always takes a little time getting used to the bigger court, the huge gym and the bright lights at Eugene. I probably should be the most comfortable player on our team there since it’s my third time. My goal is to just help our team get a win in our first game, because we haven’t been able to do that the last three years there.”
Added Heehn: “It’s going to be lots of hard work competing against so many other good teams, but I think we’ll give them a good run for their money.”
Hermiston — McKenzie Byrd 14, Gabby Heehn 13, Heidi Walchli 10, Shelby Sanders 4, Taylor Enders 5, Jansen Edmiston 5, Sara Ramirez 5, Tavin Headings 2, Abi Drotzmann 2.
Liberty — McKenzie Oster 14, Kylie Wruble 10, Sydney Smalley 7, Alexandra Flores 6, Hannah Langbehn 6, Emily Flinn 6, Elaina Maki 1, Alyssa Grenfell 1.
Hermiston 9 22 12 17 — 60
Liberty 12 11 8 20 — 51