PORTLAND -- Benson’s girls basketball team sure knows how to make the state semifinals exciting.
One year after stunning Beaverton with a buzzer-beater, the Techsters went down to the wire Friday night against Sheldon in the semifinals of the OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union 6A tournament at the Chiles Center.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no, is this going to be another Beaverton game here, and are we going to be the ones that get burned this time?’” Benson coach Eric Knox said.
But once again, it was the Techsters rising to the occasion, scoring eight consecutive points in the last two minutes to break open a tie game and beat the Irish 58-52.
“Those last two minutes, our senior leadership, and being in these types of games and this environment, showed its true colors,” Knox said. “I think that’s what allowed us to prevail.”
The No. 2 seed Techsters (25-4) will go for their first title Saturday when they meet top-seeded and two-time reigning champion Southridge. The Skyhawks defeated Benson 46-27 in last year’s final and again 55-50 in December, but the Techsters have anticipated another run-in with Southridge and are eager for the chance.
“We were always meant to be here,” Benson senior guard Ciera Ellington said. “It wasn’t a surprise that we got here. We knew we were good enough. We believe we’re a top-two team. Southridge, they’re the defending champions, but I feel like we’re champions, too.”
Knox said that up to this point, his team has played a much different role this season.
“Last year we played more of the hunter. This year, getting to the final, we played the role of the hunted,” Knox said. “But now we’re here, and we’re ready to get back to our old underdog role, and be the hunter. We know Southridge. We know how great they are. But we’ll come ready.”
The Techsters needed to summon all of their energy to turn back No. 7 seed Sheldon (24-5), which entered on a 13-game winning streak and was bidding to reach the final for the first time. Benson appeared to have subdued the Irish when it used its press and the hot shooting of junior Bria Dixson to lead 24-16 after one quarter, but Sheldon didn’t wilt and kept coming at the Techsters.
Irish junior point guard Aly Mirabile scored 11 points to keep her team within 32-30 at half, then hit a three-pointer to put Sheldon up 33-32 in the third quarter. Senior forward Kami Walk and sophomore guard Kiran Sperry added baskets, and the Irish were up 37-32.
Benson scored six quick points to pull ahead 38-37, and from there the teams traded blows. Walk split two free throws to make it 50-50 with 2:40 left in the game.
It didn’t help the Techsters that they were playing in crunch time without explosive senior guard Tayler Lyday – the hero from last year’s semifinal – who fouled out with 4:54 remaining.
“She went out, and I pulled everybody in and I was like, ‘Listen, everybody’s got to step up,’” Ellington said. “Everybody just shook their head, and that was that. You can’t sit there and sulk because one of your best players is out.”
Ellington drove for a basket, and after a steal by junior forward Aujae Yoakum, senior post Imani Harris scored for a 54-50 lead with 1:31 to go.
Yoakum had two blocked shots down the stretch, and after Harris scored on a putback and Ellington drove for a layup, the Techsters led 58-50 with 30 seconds left. Game over.
Ellington finished with 23 points and Dixson added 14 points, but the defense of the 6-foot-1 Yoakum down the stretch was just as key to the victory.
“Aujae is my Dennis Rodman,” Knox said. “All the little dirty stuff that you don’t see in the box score. To the untrained eye, you truly don’t appreciate her work. But to coaches and people who love basketball, she mixes it up, she gets on the board, she makes the big play when we need it.”
The play of Dixson, a transfer from Franklin, was another bright spot for Benson. She gave the Techsters a big lift off the bench by hitting three three-pointers in the last three minutes of the first quarter.
“We were kind of in a slump, and then when I got in there, people know I’m a shooter,” Dixson said. “But I’ve kind of struggled the last few games, so I wanted to come in there and show what I could do, help my team out. That’s my role.”
Mirabile led Sheldon with 17 points. Walk had nine points and 11 rebounds and Makayla Scurlock added nine points for the Irish, who never backed down against the talented Techsters.
“I knew when we went to shootaround this morning that the kids weren’t scared,” Sheldon coach Brian Brancato said. “I wasn’t sure before I got there, and I could tell. We had a game plan and we executed it. It came down to the last two minutes, and they made more plays than we did.”
The Techsters credited the Irish.
“They’re a very disciplined team,” Ellington said. “Coach Knox kept saying they’re here for a reason. They’re a really good team. And they just ran their stuff. They never got jumbled up.”