SALEM — It’s understood around Salem Academy’s girls basketball team that senior guard Kirsten Koehnke has the green light to do whatever she darn well wants when she darn well wants to do it.
But sometimes she has to turn the light on herself.
Koehnke (rhymes with koehnke) had to do just that Wednesday night to shake her team out of a first-half sleepwalk and lead the second-ranked Crusaders to a 37-32 home victory over top-ranked Blanchet Catholic and set up a probable playoff game for the PacWest Conference championship.
The Crusaders and Cavaliers split the season series — Blanchet won at home 48-40 on Jan. 18 — and are tied for the league lead at 8-1. Salem Academy travels to winless Scio on Friday, while Blanchet goes to struggling — but still dangerous — Amity on the same night.
If they both win, they play it off at Central of Independence on Saturday, Feb. 16 for the trophy and likely No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.
None of that would have come into play had not Koehnke (pronounced conk-key) gone off on a second-half eruption that hauled the Crusaders back from an 11-point first-half deficit for the win.
Koehnke scored 16 of her 23 points in the second half. She scored all her team’s points in a 7-2 run that broke a 30-30 tie in the last three minutes.
How’s this for perspective: Koehnke’s 16 points in the last two quarters were twice as many as Blanchet got as a team over the same stretch.
The Crusaders needed every one of them to come back on a really good Cavalier unit. The Cavs made fabulous use of back-picks and lobs in the first half, while the home team was treating the ball like a live grenade. Ana Coronado sliced through the Crusaders for eight first-half points and fed Hailey Ostby for nine more.
Blanchet opened up leads of 9-2, 19-10, 24-13 and finally 24-14 at the half. The home team, in the meantime, couldn’t hit the ocean from the ocean liner, couldn’t get a rebound and fell for just enough Blanchet plays to get itself in some serious trouble.
“We told them that our effort in the first half was the reason we were down 10,” said Crusaders coach Ben Brown. “Our shooting was bad, but our effort on rebounding, blocking inside, doing the things we’re used to doing, was bad, too.”
Brown could have used the senior-night distraction excuse, but he didn’t. Instead, he credited the Cavaliers. He also remembered that his team had an 11-point lead against the Cavs on Jan. 18, too.
“They got us off our game,” he said. “Their defense was really good.”
Koehnke, who lives in Stayton and transferred over from Regis last year, agreed. “We all went in there at halftime knowing we could do better,” she said. “They’re a great team, but everybody was a little frustrated, too. Our lack of rebounding hurt us. We needed to kick it into gear.
The comeback started in the expected place; Koehnke went coast to coast on a loose ball, and an old-fashioned three-point play to cut the Cavalier lead to 26-19. But it was what happened next that really lit the Crusaders up.
After a steal by Chloe Campbell, the Crusaders spun the ball around the glue-handed Cavalier defenders until 6-foot-2 post Jamie VanderStoel got it in the dead corner. She dropped an all-cotton three-ball from there and suddenly the Crusaders were within fourth.
“That was a really huge three for us,” Koehnke said. “The game shifted a lot after that.”
The Salem Academy defense had something to do with that. The Crusaders shut off the penetration moves in the key that had gotten the Cavaliers the lead in the first half. Coronado went scoreless in the second half and Ostby got only four more.
Salem Academy rolled off 12 straight points to take a 28-26 lead early in the last period, but the Cavaliers recovered with four quick points from Ostby to retake the lead.
Grace Brown’s layup tied it up for the last time at 30-30 with 3:51 to go. Then it was Koehnke time.
She broke the final tie with a double-pump from the key, then dropped a perfect three-pointer from the top of the key for a 35-30 lead with 2:11 left. The Cavaliers didn’t know it, but they were done.
This is the kind of confidence Brown has in Koehnke. The Crusaders (20-4) were nursing the 35-30 lead when he called a timeout with 1:24 left and had his players spread the floor. Nineteen seconds later, Koehnke let ‘er rip from 18 feet for the finishing blow.
“Kirsten has a great basketball IQ,” Brown said. “She comes from a basketball family. She knows her limits, but if she’s feeling it, we just let her go. I told her to use the pick however you want to see it, and that if you see an advantage, you can take it and go.”
Koehnke is grateful for the opportunity.
“No, there wasn’t a lot of hesitation,” she said of her shot selection. “It’s nice to have that confidence the coach has in me, hearing him say I can make that shot.
“And my teammates trusting me and doing a good job of spreading the floor and helping me get the open shots.”
Ostby was the only visitor in double figures for the Cavaliers (20-3) with 13 points.