By Ray Hamill — The Panthers continued their late season surge with another big performance in girls basketball on Friday night, closing out the Big 5 with an emphatic 53-39 win over the Del Norte Warriors at McKinleyville High.
In what was a must-win game for the Mack girls, they came storming out of the gates and took control of the game in the first half, turning an 8-0 start into a 34-12 halftime lead.
The victory lifts the Panthers to 3-5 in the Big 5 and into a three-way tie for third, along with Arcata and Del Norte.
The three rivals will now have a two-game playoff to see who earns the No. 3 seed for next week’s Dick Niclai tournament, with Arcata traveling to Del Norte on Saturday night, and the winner playing McKinleyville on Monday.
The winner of that game will then play Eureka in the opening round of the Niclai on Wednesday.
Friday’s win also pushes the Panthers back up to 6-6 against Division-IV opponents, which makes them NCS playoff eligible.
They could lose that eligibility, however, with a loss on Monday, although they will carry plenty of momentum into the crucial clash with four wins in their last five games in a run that has seen them battle back from the brink of elimination.
Friday was senior night and all five of them continued to play a major role, most notably Rayn Tripp, who has been this team’s inspirational leader on the court all season.
Tripp scored a team-high 13 points, including three 3-pointers, while fellow seniors Hailee Henry, Rian Heenan and Kyrie Wiegand each chipped in six points.
The team’s fifth senior Hope Kibby had another big performance defensively, as all five of them began the night with a lot of energy and intensity, taking the game to the visitors.
Heenan and Tripp each are four-year varsity players, and Henry and Kibby are each in their third year with the varsity team, so this is a class with a lot of experience.
“Having that experience is a huge advantage,” head coach Tony McClure said. “And that’s why we’re clicking now.”
The Panthers stretched their lead to as many as 24 on a couple of occasions in the second half before the Warriors made a late run.
Cameron Heenan also continued to impress for the Panthers (10-14 overall), finishing with 10 points.
“I thought they all did a good job defensively,” McClure said. “I think it was just a good team effort.”
For Del Norte (12-11), Jadence Clifton scored a team-high 17 points, while Lily Wilson and Kirsten Brous added seven points each and Aleesha Lenover six.
McKinleyville also won the JV game.
Saturdays game between Arcata and Del Norte will tip off at 7 p.m.