Willamette's Isabella Harms works inside against Jefferson's Charisma Johnson in Thursday's quarterfinal. (Photo by Jon Olson)
Willamette's Isabella Harms works inside against Jefferson's Charisma Johnson in Thursday's quarterfinal. (Photo by Jon Olson)

PORTLAND – One year after a heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals, junior-led Willamette drew on its experience to push through to the final four Thursday.

The fifth-seeded Wolverines opened an 18-point lead over No. 4 Jefferson early in the second half and survived a late rally to win 53-47 in the quarterfinals of the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 6A girls basketball tournament at the Chiles Center.

“We've played here before. We played in this game,” Willamette junior forward Isabella Harms said. “The only difference was we couldn't lose in the first round this time. It definitely helped our motivation to come out and play hard.”

Junior guard Brynn Smith had 22 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals and Harms had 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals for the Wolverines (21-7), who advanced to the semifinals for the first time since winning the 5A title in 2014. They will meet top-seeded South Medford, their Southwest Conference rival, on Friday.

Smith said Thursday's win reflects on the team's maturation since last year, when the Wolverines nearly took down No. 1 seed Jesuit in the quarterfinals but lost 58-55.

“We've all grown as people just as much as basketball players,” Smith said. “And physically, we tried to get stronger, get quicker, and just really build off of last year.”

Against Jefferson (24-3), Willamette took control with a 19-0 run that built a 31-15 lead late in the second quarter. Harms had a three-pointer, a layup and a three-point play in the surge. Smith finished it off with back-to-back three-pointers (off assists from junior Victoria Nguyen) and a layup off a steal.

'We played our game and didn't let their physicality and aggression rush us,” Smith said. “They're a super fast team, they like to pressure us, which we knew coming in, but it's always different when it's actually happening. We just stayed composed.”

The Wolverines – who start four 6-footers – held Jefferson scoreless for more than nine minutes, using their length to deflect passes and create turnovers. Of the Democrats' 16 turnovers, 13 came in the first half.

“They're long and everything, but we were just over-passing,” Jefferson coach Andre Lawrence said. “We ended up being too unselfish instead of being a little more selfish.”

Willamette scored the first four points of the third quarter to lead 35-17 before Jefferson began to find its footing.

Freshman Makenzee Lawrence scored on two putbacks and a free throw and junior Leila Nunez scored inside in a 7-0 run that cut the lead to 42-33 early in the fourth quarter. The Democrats scored nine consecutive points midway through the fourth quarter, getting within 48-43 on a rebound basket by Nunez with 3:21 left.

“We just needed to get into our groove,” Nunez said.

Andre Lawrence said it took a while for his players to get used to the environment.

“Our first year of playing here, it was kind of overwhelming at the beginning,” he said. “We settled in and started playing our kind of basketball. We started hitting shots and making layups. We fought, that's the big thing.”

Willamette committed 10 of its 16 turnovers in the second half as the Democrats cranked up the pressure.

“They don't like to lose, and they always put up a good fight,” Smith said. “I think that maybe we settled a little bit, which we shouldn't have done. And then we were like, 'OK, we have to continue to push and play.' We eventually got a hold of it and finished strong.”

Jefferson cut the lead to 51-47 on a basket by freshman Mylee Lawrence with 1:53 to go, and had two chances to get closer, but missed shots. Smith made two free throws with 15 seconds left for the final margin.

“We knew they were going to come back,” Harms said. “We just had to try to keep our composure and keep playing our game. At state, every good team is going to put it all out.”

The Wolverines will get another crack at South Medford. They lost to the Panthers 45-32 and 60-48 in conference games.

“It'll be tough, but hopefully the past two times playing them will help,” Smith said. “We know their game. … We let them rush us. We have to really stick to our game plan.”

Harms said the difference in the losses was “energy.”

“South Medford is a very physical team,” Harms said. “They like to get up, they like to run. So sometimes we'd back down to the energy. As long as we don't shy away, and we're just as aggressive, we can control the tempo and pace.”

Nunez had 13 points, six rebounds and two steals to lead Jefferson, which also got 10 points, eight rebounds and three steals from Makenzee Lawrence. Junior guard Chauncey Andersen, the team's leading scorer, finished with four points on 1-for-9 shooting.

It was a learning experience for the Democrats, who made their first quarterfinal appearance since winning the 5A title in 2010.

“Unfortunately we didn't get the win, but we're going to get there next year,” Nunez said. “I definitely think it's going to help us go forward. We have a whole bunch of juniors on our team, so next year is our year.”