High School Sports

Midnight strikes on Connell girls

YAKIMA -- The Connell girls earned their moniker as this year's Cinderella story at the 1A state basketball tournament, winning their first two games against two of the state's top-ranked teams.

In the fairy tale, the heroine's dream stopped at 12 midnight.

In this case, it was Italia Mengarelli's No. 12 Granger jersey that spelled the end for the Eagles' state title hopes. The 5-foot-4 junior single-handedly outscored Connell in the first half -- 18-15 -- and led the Spartans to a 64-35 semifinal victory.

Granger (24-1) will meet Freeman (25-1) for the 1A state title at 9 p.m. today. Connell (18-9) will face Lynden Christian (23-4) in the third-sixth place game at 5 p.m. Win or lose, the Eagles will earn their fifth state trophy in the last eight seasons.

But that wasn't much of a consolation in an emotional Connell locker room.

"It hurts bad," said Eagles' guard Kayla Bjorge. "They deserve it. They were shooting so well."

Connell coach Dan Colby led Connell to the 1994 1A girls championship, but another title will have to wait.

"It definitely was Granger's night. They got off to a tremendous start," he said of his team's 17-0 deficit in the first 3:20 of the first quarter. "I used up four of my five timeouts in the first 10 minutes."

The Eagles missed their first nine shots from the field before Bjorge hit a 3-pointer with 2:31 left in the first quarter to make it 17-3. But that was just one of four baskets Connell had in the first half.

"I felt there was hope we could come back," said Bjorge, who finished with six points.

Connell had a similar auspicious start in Thursday's quarterfinal win over Okanogan, trailing 17-1 before coming back for a 44-40 win. But instead of collapsing in the face of the Eagles' scrappy defensive pressure, Granger continued to build off its hot start.

Even after another Bjorge 3-pointer capped a 10-0 Connell run near the end of the first quarter to cut the lead to 17-10, the Spartans stayed aggressive on offense, and it paid off. Mengarelli hit another 3-pointer with 6:34 left in the second to spark an 11-0 run, giving Granger a healthy 32-11 cushion.

"We felt Connell was tired," said Spartans coach Andy Affholter, who hopes to bring home the program's first-ever state title today. "They were not the same team that played Wednesday and Thursday."

Mengarelli scored 18 points in the first two quarters as Granger shot out to a 39-15 halftime lead. She struggled with a back injury that kept her out for a month in January, but she admits to playing big when the stakes are high, a tradition that runs in the family. Her cousin, Elyse, earned four state trophies, including a 2A state title with East Valley in 2002.

"It's the environment," said Mengarelli, who scored 22 points in last year's championship loss to Seattle Christian. "We hate to lose."

Mengarelli finished with a game-high 20 points. Fantasia Reyes came off the Spartans' bench to add four 3-pointers for 14 points.

Granger's big lead had a devastating effect in the Connell locker room at halftime. After Thursday's big comeback, the thought of overcoming another was just too much to bear.

"Everybody was frustrated, trying not to yell at each other. We came into the locker room (at halftime) arguing," said Bjorge. "It was very unusual. For the most part, we're really close and we all have each other's back."

Whitby led the Eagles with 11 points.