Junior guard Brynn Smith (12) is averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game for Willamette. (Photo by Joseph Bongcayao)
Junior guard Brynn Smith (12) is averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game for Willamette. (Photo by Joseph Bongcayao)

Much of the talk heading into the season in 6A girls basketball was about reigning champion Clackamas and Benson, the top two teams in the preseason coaches poll.

After one month, it's clear that Willamette belongs in that elite tier.

The junior-dominated Wolverines (7-4), who returned their entire starting lineup from a quarterfinal team, are showing to be much improved from last season. The most obvious example came in the POA Holiday Classic last week when they rolled to a 54-43 win over Benson, a team that defeated them by 31 points a year ago.

Willamette finished a three-game run at the POA Holiday Classic with an impressive 63-56 win over Mater Dei (Calif.), which defeated Washington's top-ranked big-school team, Camas, at the tournament. The Wolverines moved up to No. 2 in this week's 6A coaches poll, vaulting over No. 3 Benson.

“We played great,” coach Danielle McBride said. “Our big focus this year is our defensive effort. It kind of showed in this tournament how much we've improved since last year. It's been pretty exciting.”

Willamette avenged another defeat from last season by winning 64-50 at 5A No. 3 Silverton on Dec. 15. The Wolverines also have beaten 5A No. 2 Crater 54-34 and 5A No. 5 Wilsonville 82-34.

“This year, the kids are just really locked in,” McBride said. “We're all on the same page. We're sticking to the game plan. Things are just really clicking for us right now. Our kids have individually improved a lot, and as a team, we're starting to figure it out together.”

All four of Willamette's losses have come against out-of-state teams. The Wolverines went 1-3 at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona on Dec. 18-21 and lost to California powerhouse Etiwanda 72-52 at the POA Holiday Classic.

Willamette has four third-year starters in junior guards Brynn Smith (6-0) and Victoria Nguyen (5-5) and junior forwards Maddy Warberg (6-0) and Harper Wagner (6-0). Junior forward Isabella Harms (6-0) became a starter last season after transferring from Sheldon.

Smith, who as a sophomore averaged a team-high 18 points per game and made the 6A second team, leads Willamette in scoring at 18.7. Harms is next at 16.3.

The team's size is imposing on defense.

“We're pretty long,” McBride said. “We're not super big or stocky, but with our quickness and length, people have a problem with that. We focus a lot on getting help. Making sure we're communicating is the biggest thing. The kids are figuring out that we have to play as a team if we want to get stops.”

Against Benson, the Wolverines fell behind by eight points in the first quarter but rebounded to lead 33-22 at half and pushed the advantage as high as 15 points in the fourth quarter. Harms made three three-pointers and scored 21 points. Smith had 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists and Nguyen added 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Smith led the way in the win over Mater Dei, making four three-pointers and finishing with 19 points, three rebounds, six assists and three steals. Nguyen contributed 11 points, eight rebounds and three assists.

McBride (formerly Bellando), who played on the first of Willamette's four 5A title teams in 2007, said that some observers were calling the win over Mater Dei the biggest victory in school history.

“I'm like, winning a state championship feels like a pretty big win, too,” she said. “But it was like, shoot, Willamette, they can play a little bit. That was a fun way to end that little stretch.”

The schedule doesn't get any easier for Willamette, which takes on two reigning state champions this week. The Wolverines visit 5A No. 1 Springfield on Wednesday before playing host to No. 1 Clackamas on Friday.

Willamette could move to the top of the 6A poll by beating Clackamas.

“We'll try to have a good game plan against them,” McBride said. “I think we match up well with them. But we know they're tough.”

The Wolverines have a major obstacle in the Southwest with No. 4 South Medford, which has won 37 consecutive conference games. But they aren't backing down from challenges, and that includes going after their first state title since 2014.

“We have big goals in mind,” McBride said. “Why not us? We've shown that we can play with some of these top teams. Come March, it's going to be an exciting time for us.”

Hornets stay perfect

Unbeaten Henley, No. 1 in the OSAAtoday4A coaches poll, needed a basket in the final seconds to defeat 3A No. 6 Banks 46-43 in the final of the Sisters Shootout on Saturday.

With the score tied 43-43, guard Annie Campos drove toward the basket and passed to the left corner to a wide-open Kennedi Modin, who made a three-pointer with five seconds left for the win. The Hornets improved their record to 11-0.

Banks (8-3) opened the fourth quarter with a 10-1 run to draw even at 34-34 tie and took the lead down the stretch. Prestyn Schade hit a jumper to put Henley ahead 41-40 and made two free throws with 45 seconds left to tie 43-43.

Jewell Northcutt had a team-high 12 points and six rebounds for the Hornets. Anna Harper had seven points and 11 rebounds and Campos added six points, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals.

The Braves got 15 points from freshman Nylah Vanthom.

In Henley's first two games in the tournament, it defeated No. 6 La Grande 57-45 and No. 9 Madras 74-62.

POA Holiday Classic finals

South Medford and No. 8 Nelson were among the bracket winners Saturday in the POA Holiday Classic.

South Medford defeated Mission Hills (Calif.) 63-56 in the championship game of the Platinum bracket. Taylor Young had 19 points and five steals, Mayen Akpan had 10 points and 16 rebounds and Dyllyn Howell added 15 points for the Panthers (8-3).

To reach the final, South Medford beat Cleveland 70-35 in the first round and West Linn 59-29 in the semifinals. Young had 23 points, four assists and four steals against Cleveland. Sara Schmerbach put up 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists and six steals against West Linn.

Nelson (8-0) topped Wilsonville 55-44 to win the Emerald bracket. The Hawks advanced by dropping Annie Wright (Wash.) 62-33 and No. 10 Southridge 49-34 in the first two rounds.

In other finals Saturday, Clovis West (Calif.) upended No. 7 Tualatin 48-41 to win the Emerald bracket, Lincoln (Wash.) stopped La Salle Prep 65-39 to claim the Sapphire bracket, and Bakersfield Christian (Calif.) turned back Grant 47-34 to take the Gold bracket.