PORTLAND -- In years past, it was the type of game that would have ended in defeat for Benson’s girls basketball team.
The Techsters couldn’t get untracked Friday against Garfield of Seattle in a rough-and-tumble Diamond bracket semifinal in the Pacific Office Automation Holiday Classic, and for much of the game, it appeared as if it wasn’t going to be their day.
But senior-laden Benson is a veteran team now, and the lessons the Techsters have learned along the way ultimately manifested themselves in a hard-fought 42-40 win at Franklin High School.
“We’re tough. That’s just us all around,” senior guard Ciera Ellington said. “We know what it’s like to be down. That’s just what Benson basketball is – we’re tough, hard-working and aggressive. When it gets tough, we just fight.”
Third-ranked Benson (5-3) wiped out a seven-point deficit in the third quarter and made just enough plays down the stretch to hand Garfield (9-1), Washington’s 3A runner-up last season, its first defeat.
Ellington had 21 points, seven rebounds and five steals and senior guard Tayler Lyday made a go-ahead free throw with 25 seconds left for the Techsters, who will play No. 2 Southridge in the bracket final at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of last season's 6A title game.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we kept grinding. We didn’t let go of the rope,” Benson coach Eric Knox said. “We know we’re a good team. We know if we hang around, we can finish people off. We’ve been having a lot of clutch moments over the years with this group. So we just felt as long as we stayed around Garfield, we felt we could close them out at the end.”
Ellington fought through first-half shooting woes to keep Benson in the game in the second half. She scored 13 points in the second half and finished 7 of 20 from the field.
“At halftime I set a goal for myself, I said I was going to drop 20,” Ellington said. “I had to play good defense. I know that once I do good on defense, I know my offense will come. So it was like, ‘Let me D-up, and settle down, and I know I’ll start making shots.’”
Ellington scored nine points during a 12-3 run as Benson took a 31-29 lead early in the fourth quarter. Her last basket was a three-pointer that tied it 38-38 with 2:22 left.
“She didn’t quit on herself, and that’s a big step for Ciera,” Knox said. “She’s been playing big in big games. And I wasn’t surprised that she found her way in the second half, because she’s been doing that all year.”
With the score tied 40-40, Ellington missed a shot with 30 seconds left, but Lyday rebounded and was fouled. Lyday banked in the first free throw and missed the second for a 41-40 lead with 25 seconds on the clock.
Garfield senior guard Samaiyah Tolliver, who led her team with 20 points, was fouled with eight seconds left but missed two free throws. Benson rebounded and added a free throw from Makenzy Porter with one second left for the final margin.
The Techsters shot just 30.4 percent (14 for 46) from the field and made only 9 of 19 free throws. Benson’s defense came through, though, holding the Bulldogs to 35.0-percent shooting (14 for 40).
Garfield’s Dalayah Daniels, a 6-3 forward who is rated as the No. 13 junior recruit in the nation by ESPN, shot 1 of 6 from the field and finished with two points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
“We crowded her. We wanted her to feel our presence,” Knox said of Daniels. “We tried to come at her, not make it easy for her.”
Benson won despite the explosive Lyday struggling on offense, making 3 of 11 shots and finishing with eight points and eight rebounds. Knox said Lyday was slowed with “pelvic issues.”
“Tayler carries us at a lot of levels,” Knox said. “She’s one of our biggest gamers in the biggest moments. I think sometimes the burden of that wears her down because she is so clutch, and we do depend on her. But our whole group has been nicked up. We’ve been battling little nick-nack injuries. She just wasn’t herself. She didn’t come with a lot of energy today.”
Knox said that Benson has learned how to play “smashmouth basketball,” and it showed up Friday. Despite losing three of four games against national-caliber competition in the Nike Tournament of Champions last week in Arizona, he expects the experience to pay off for the Techsters.
“We learned a lot, and we brought it to this tournament,” Knox said.