If you want a preview of the OSAA 2A girls state basketball tournament, check out the Tri-River Conference playoffs next week.
Four of the state’s top six teams in the OSAA power rankings reside in the Tri-River, including defending state champion Kennedy.
On Friday, No. 2 Western Mennonite (18-7, 8-4) defeated No. 3 Kennedy (14-9, 10-2), the regular season champs, 54-50 in overtime before a packed house in what is known as “The Barn” on Western Mennonite’s campus.
It would come as no surprise if Western Mennonite and Kennedy met again Feb. 18 in the league playoff championship game, and perhaps a couple weeks later in Pendleton in the state tournament.
Tri-River: Conference of champions
The Tri-River has produced the past eight girls state champions.
“I honestly love the Tri-River. It’s the best league in 2A,” said Western Mennonite senior guard Madison Hull, who scored 35 points in Friday’s dramatic comeback victory by the Pioneers. “Every night you never take it off because every team’s good.”
No. 1 Monroe (23-0) of the Mountain View Conference is the main challenger to end the Tri-Rivers’s streak of state championships.
Kennedy is strong once again despite the graduation of first team all-state guard Lakin Susee, who is the leading scorer this season for Chemeketa Community College.
“Once you get out of the Tri-River (playoffs) we’re really tough because every night we’re battling,” Kennedy coach Kerry Hall said. “We love it.”
No. 6 Regis, which won five consecutive state crowns from 2010 to 2014, is the No. 3 seed in the Tri-River playoffs. The fourth seed was determined by a play-in game Saturday between St. Paul and No. 5 East Linn Christian.
Western Mennonite overcomes challenges
Western Mennonite has navigated a road littered with challenges to emerge as a state championship contender.
Former coach Robby Gilliam resigned in November due to health reasons. Hull, a first-team all-state selection last season, said Western Mennonite was close to not fielding a team this season.
“There just wasn’t enough interest,” Hull said. “We weren’t gonna have a team at the beginning. Even some of the girls that are starting (now), it’s not that they didn’t want to play. … But I’m the only returning starter from last year and so a lot of them weren’t confident.”
Enter Mike Hopper, who came on board as head coach. The Pioneers stayed together and developed into a strong team.
Hopper, whose daughter, Peyton, is a senior guard for Western Mennonite, joked that his primary role as coach is “to stay out of their way.”
Said Hull: “He’s doing a great job.”
Hull hopes to conclude prep career in Pendleton
Western Mennonite would not be in this position without the stellar all-around play of Hull. Her 30-foot 3-pointer with five seconds remaining in regulation forced overtime Friday against Kennedy.
Hull scored 20 of her 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, helping the Pioneers overcome a 39-31 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
“If she’s not the best player in the state I would be hard pressed to find out who was,” Hopper said.
Had Western Mennonite cancelled its season, Hull said she would have played at West Salem in the 6A Greater Valley Conference.
The challenge of testing her skills at the state’s highest level would “have been a cool experience,” but Hull wanted to finish her high school basketball career at Western Mennonite, where her father, Gary Hull, has guided the boys basketball program for three decades.
“I would have missed it so much,” she said.
Two teams from each of the six 2A conferences automatically qualify for the 16-team state playoffs, and two more get in based on their standing in the OSAA power rankings. Eight teams will qualify for the 2A state tournament March 2-4.
Hull has an opportunity to conclude her high school career with a fourth consecutive state tournament appearance at the Pendleton Convention Center.
“I love Pendleton. It’s like nothing else,” Hull said. “Everything shuts down and everyone comes and watches.”
More sports coverage:
Western Mennonite 54, Kennedy 50 (OT)
Kennedy: Kleinschmit 11, Carley 11, Jaegar 11, Cantu 7, Arritola 6, Frey 2, Gomez 2
W. Mennonite: Hull 35, Hess 12, Pack 3, Foster 2, Hopper 2
KENNEDY 15-12-12-5-6 – 50
W. MENN 9-14-8-13-10 – 54
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6726 or Twitter.com/ghorowitz