By Ray Hamill — The Panthers are now officially back.
After two straight winless campaigns in the Big 5 over the past two years, the McKinleyville girls came into this season riding a 17-game losing streak in conference play.
That seems like a long time ago now, and on Thursday night the Panthers clinched third in the Big 5 and a coveted spot in next week’s Dick Niclai Memorial Tournament with a 53-51 win over Fortuna at Mack High.
The win lifts the Panthers to 4-4 in league play and 14-12 overall, and gives them their most wins in a season since 2014.
Clutch free throws
The Huskies gave them everything they could handle late, rallying from an eight-point deficit early in the fourth quarter and hovering within a basket of tying the game for much of the final few minutes.
The Panthers, however, were able to hold off the late surge with some solid defense and some clutch shooting from the free-throw line.
Charlotte Carroll and Camrin Dolcini were particularly dangerous throughout for the visitors, but it was a Bailey Parker 3-pointer than pulled them within one point with nine seconds remaining.
McKinleyville’s Rayn Tripp then kept her cool to drain one of two ensuing free throws, before a Fortuna turnover with just five seconds remaining essentially ended the threat.
“We were able to finish off the fourth quarter from the free-throw line,” fourth-year McKinleyville head coach Tony McClure said.
The Panthers made good on 9 of 13 attempts in the final period, and 24 of 33 for the game, with seven different players contributing in what was a scrappy contest.
Cameron Heenan led the Panthers offensively with 11 points, while Theresia Dickey added nine points and Rian Heenan eight.
Grace Rosebrook was instrumental as always in running the offense, while draining a big 3-pointer late in the third quarter to give her team an eight-point lead.
With their backs to the wall and a place in next week’s tournament on the line, however, the Huskies battled back late in the game to make for a thrilling finish.
Carroll caused the Panthers numerous problems in the paint, particularly in the second half, and finished with a game-high 18 points.
The Huskies junior, who has evolved into one of the most dangerous post players in the area, scored 16 of her tally in the second half and was 8 of 10 at the line.
Dolcini added 10 points in the loss, while Jordyn Quen finished with nine and also was instrumental in the late surge with seven points in the final period.
Quen also stepped up at the free-throw line, nailing three of her four attempts in the fourth quarter.
With the loss, the Huskies close out league play at 3-5 and are now 13-11 overall.
Both schools’ JV teams also battled hard, with the home team pulling out a 49-39 win to claim the league title over their closest challengers.