No. 3 Oregon City (22-2, 14-0) locked down No. 9 Central Catholic (16-8, 12-2) in their 39-36 win on Tuesday night to clinch the Mt. Hood Conference championship.
“It was kind of an ugly game,” Oregon City head coach Kurt Guelsdorf said. “But, it’s a win you got to have this time of year.”
Tuesday night was the third matchup between the Mt. Hood Conference’s top two teams. Oregon City knocked off the Rams 43-36 in a December non-league game. The Pioneers dominated the first league meeting 55-28 at home in January. A third matchup meant familiarity and it showed on the defensive end.
“Everybody knows each other,” Guelsdorf said. “They look at each other and go ‘Oh boy, here we go again.'”
Central Catholic knew Pioneers guard Cierra Walker is the cog of the their offensive machine. Enter the Rams’ Zharia Hale, who was tasked with shutting down the Mt. Hood Conference’s top scorer.
Walker, hampered slightly by a jammed finger, led the Pioneers with ten points, just half of her season average. Hale kept in front of Walker and made it difficult for the junior to find driving lanes.
“Zharia Hale did a great job on Cierra,” Guelsdorf said.
As a result of Hale’s pestering, Oregon City’s guard had to find ways to get her teammates involved.
“When they start locking down on Cierra, her goal is to get us the ball and get a lot of assists,” Oregon City forward Katie Kammerer said.
Kammerer was one of the many contributing role players for the Pioneers. The 5-foot-11 post scored six of her eight points in the first half to keep the Pioneers close at a 20-19 halftime deficit. Kammerer’s length defensively clogged the Rams’ passing lanes as well.
“We did a lot of studying,” Kammerer said. “We had to lock down, know each player and know what they were doing.”
Central Catholic trailed 28-22 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter. It appeared the Pioneers were on the verge of breaking away. However, the Rams hung tough and fought their way back to a 36-36 tie with 2:30 remaining in the game.
That’s when all the studying paid off for the Pioneers. Oregon City did not allow a point the rest of the game and Taylor Knighton and Walker made three free throws to put the Pioneers on top.
“We hate to lose,” Walker said. “We knew we had to battle and it was going to come down to one stop.”
Well, two stops. The Pioneers led by one and Central Catholic had the ball with 30 seconds remaining. The Rams found their top scorer, forward Jerusha Paine, at the top of the key. Paine, who led the Rams with 13 points, attempted to back her way down the right lane as she had done all night. Walker recognized the move from her former teammate and poked the ball away. Walker was then fouled and hit two free throws with 26 seconds left.
Central Catholic still had one last chance to tie the game. This time it was Knighton, who had 11 that rebounds, that came up with the clutch defensive play. The 5-foot-10 junior forward stepped out and blocked Lucy Criswell’s game-tying three-point attempt. Criswell finished the game with 11 points.
The win meant much more than a league championship for Oregon City. All of the Pioneers players had “MW” written in marker on their arms to honor their friend Maddy West, who was killed in a car accident on Friday.
“We played this game for her,” Walker said.
On the court, the Pioneers extended their winning streak to 16 games and are ready to defend their state championship.
“We’ve turned that corner,” Guelsdorf said. “You’re going to have one of these games somewhere down the road. It’s great for the kids to have to go through that.”
Oregon City and Central Catholic will await to see where they end up in the OSAA rankings and prepare for the grueling next two weeks of playoff basketball.