By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers have come a long way this season.
They’ve arguably come a long way in the past week alone.
And now they’ve put themselves in position to secure a spot in the Dick Niclai Memorial Tournament, taking over sole possession of third place in the Big 5 standings with a stunning 45-39 win at Eureka High on Thursday.
Not bad for a team that came into the season riding a 17-game conference losing streak, having posted back-to-back winless campaigns over the past two years.
The victory was founded on a complete team performance, something this year’s Panthers have become adept at, and a seemingly greater desire and intensity than their opponents.
“I think McKinleyville had a better team effort tonight,” Eureka head coach Michael Harvey said. “And I think effort and focus matter. McKinleyville wanted it.”
It certainly appeared that way with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, after a back-and-forth clash that saw 11 lead changes in the first half alone.
McKinleyville’s trademark defensive intensity was evident late in the game, as the visitors out-rebounded the home team with Cameron Heenan and Hailee Henry particularly effective down the stretch.
It didn’t help matters for the home team when three major players — Carly Boynton, Dorshaela Wesson and Kellina Pratton — each fouled out in the fourth quarter.
For Mack, that was part of the game plan.
“That was what we wanted to do,” McKinleyville head coach Tony McClure said. “Keep pressure on them to try and stop us.”
Both teams had their problems shooting the ball.
The Loggers shot poorly from the field, while the Panthers failed repeatedly to hit their free throws in the fourth quarter.
The visitors could have sealed this one long before the final buzzer but for a 2-of-11 effort from the line down the stretch.
It didn’t matter. Their team defense made sure of that.
“We kept getting stops,” McClure said.
With Heenan particularly effective on the defensive boards during that spell, the Mack girls held the home team to just five fourth-quarter points, outscoring them by one for the period.
Other things worked well for the Panthers, who are finding top form at an opportune time and guaranteed a North Coast Section playoff game, perhaps even a home game if they can continue to close out strong.
They attacked the basket better, something their coach says they have been working on, and relied less on their 3-point shooting, making just eight attempts all game.
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers led by as many as nine and tried to run the clock down, and it almost backfired with slower-paced attacks breaking down.
It went against their nature.
“They were almost too patient,” McClure said of his players.
Their defense, however, saved them time and again.
In need of help
The loss leaves the Eureka girls needing help if they are to secure a share of the Big 5 title with Del Norte, whom they host in their final game next Thursday.
Napoleon finished with a team-high 10 points for the Loggers, who dropped to 5-2 in the Big 5 and 15-7 overall, while Paige Lyons added nine points.
The ever-dangerous Rayn Tripp paced the Panthers with 15 points, while Cameron Heenan had 12 points and Rian Heenan eight.
Cameron Heenan also had 12 rebounds.
“She really played big,” McClure said. “Her and Rayn are getting a lot better.”
The Loggers showed plenty of respect for Cameron Heenan and how much she has evolved as a threat this season, by assigning Napoleon early defensive duties on her.
With the win, the Mack girls improved to 3-3 in the Big 5 and 13-10 overall.
The Loggers will play at St. Bernard’s on Saturday, while the Panthers will host St. Bernard’s on Monday.
In JV action, the visiting Panthers won 60-50.