Before the season, first-year coach Darren Dean hesitated to raise expectations about the Toutle Lake girls basketball team, who won just two league games last year.
But on Monday night, the Ducks outlasted the Northwest Christian Wolverines, 44-41, to survive the first round of the district tournament.
“I’m proud of the girls,” Dean said, emphasizing the last word. “They put in the work. They’re out there on the floor. It’s never any question on what we’re doing. It’s just ‘Yes, coach.’ It’s a great group. They deserve it.”
The Ducks came out firing in the first quarter.
Junior Molly Donald netted 14 first-quarter points, hitting three 3-pointers and 5 of 5 free throws in leading Toutle to a 25-15 first-quarter lead. But she ran into foul trouble and was sicker than man’s best friend, and she had to sit, Dean said.
“She probably used all her energy in that first quarter,” Dean said.
Even so, the first quarter was a welcome sight for Dean. Keeley Studebaker-Smith hit a 3 and both Jasmine Smith and Jordyn Grabenhorst had buckets.
Dean said it was one of the team’s two best first quarters all year, comparing it to the first frame of the 49-29 win at Onalaska two weeks ago.
“That was awesome,” Dean said. “The girls really shot the ball well. I think a little bit of district nerves got us there, and sometimes when you shoot that hot there’s nowhere to go but down.”
“We felt really good,” Donald said. “It was really nice, but it kinda ... disappeared.”
The Wolvervines had one advantage: size. The Ducks kept trying to drive into the key. But the Wolverine combination of Kindy Hanson, Mikayla Lanham, Becca Sowers, plus intermittent contributions from the guards, formed a brick wall.
After that initial period, the Ducks attacked the rim, but the Wolverines were there to block from behind or in front and crawled back in. After the first quarter, Toutle Lake was outscored 26-19,though it never trailed.
Whitley Stepp took NWC’s offense into her hands and willed it to a tie at 40 by scooping in a layup through a foul with 3:45 left in the final period. It was the first time since a 3-3 tie that the Wolverines had a chance to lead, but it was fleeting.
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Both offenses suddenly found the basket covered with lid. Finally, with 1:02 left, Grabenhorst drew a foul after NWC missed another go-ahead basket, giving the sophomore a chance to help seal the win. She made 1 of 2, pushing Toutle Lake ahead 41-40 and prompting a Wolverine timeout.
Their ensuing possession ended with a miss, and again Grabenhorst drew a foul with a chance to push the lead further. She again split, and the Ducks led by two with 20.4 seconds left.
Sowers grabbed an offensive rebound for the Wolverines and got fouled on the put-back attempt, but she could only halve the lead with seconds left.
It set up the defining moment.
Deep in her own end, Studebaker-Smith, who hit three 3s and finished with 12 points, faced a Wolverine press. She didn’t panic, and instead lobbed it down the floor to Kaydence King.
It was a smart play, either leading to an easy layup or burned time and a floor-length NWC drive. But King reached it and calmly flicked in the layup. It gave Toutle Lake a 44-41 lead, and it held.
“This league (the 2B Central League) will prepare you for games like this,” Dean said. “We’ve played in a few close ones, and they’ve been there. We’ve practiced (the press-breaker) in practice and they executed that long throw-in pass perfect.”
The No. 6 Ducks get the No. 3 Chief Leschi Warriors at Castle Rock at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
There’s no shortage of confidence.
“It’s super exciting,” Donald said. “I think it’s just a confidence booster, too. Now we know we can go far. We’re just gonna keep it going.”
Toutle Lake 44, Northwest Christian 41