By Ray Hamill — To say that the McKinleyville Panthers have gotten hot at an opportune time is an understatement.
After struggling to win close games for much of the season, the Panthers appear almost unstoppable right now and appear ready to give anyone in this week’s Dick Niclai a run for their money.
On Monday night, the Panthers traveled to Arcata and came away with an emphatic 58-39 win in a Niclai play-in game against a Tigers team that had won all three previous matchups between the two rivals this season.
The Mack girls, whose season appeared all but done less than two weeks ago, have now won five of their six games since then, giving them almost half of their wins this year — they’re 11-14 — in the past 12 days.
“I think our seniors, they didn’t want this to be their last game,” McKinleyville head coach Tony McClure said. “They brought a lot of heart and energy.’
They have brought a lot of energy to almost all of their games in the past two weeks, and the Panthers’ only loss in that time came on the road at Division-I Miramonte.
Monday’s win was their third straight over Big 5 opposition after starting the season 1-7 against them, and sets up a Niclai matchup at Eureka on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
Regardless of what happens in that game, McKinleyville is now North Coast Section playoff eligible thanks to the late-season surge.
On Monday, the Panthers gradually pulled away as the game wore on, ending it as a contest long before the final buzzer.
They led 13-11 after the opening quarter and stretched the lead to nine at halftime, before outscoring the home team 16-6 in the third.
“I thought we did a good job just sticking to our game plan,” McClure said.
Cameron Heenan once again played a big role in the victory, as she has in all five of the Panthers’ late-season wins, scoring a game-high 14 points, while Hailee Henry had 13 points and Rayn Tripp had 10 points.
Hope Kibby and Rian Heenen each scored five.
It didn’t help matters for the Tigers that they were without injured standout senior Jocelyn Bliven.
Bliven has been outstanding all season for the Tigers and played a key role in all three previous wins over McKinleyville.
Junior Zoie Andre also has had an outstanding season for the Tigers and had a big game on Monday, scoring a team-high 12 points.
“Zoie’s kind of our unsung hero,” Arcata head coach Doug Oliveira said of Andre, who had to adjust her role as she picked up a lot of the slack in Bliven’s absence. “She’s been solid and our rock all year.”
Grace Talty added seven points for the Tigers, who closed out the season 12-14 and are ineligible for the NCS playoffs after the loss.
Bella Volz-Broughton and senior Kayla Hamm each chipped in six points, with the latter hitting a couple of fourth-quarter 3-points in her final game for the Tigers.
It was a disappointing ending to the season, but the Tigers went down battling.
“We came out a little bit flat and we really didn’t shoot the ball well,” Oliveira said.
The coach, however, was more than happy with his players’ efforts, as he has been all season.
“This was a tremendous group,” he said. “They played their hearts out every time they stepped on the floor.”
Bliven, the coach added, will be missed.
“She’s such a great person, and such a great leader,” Oliveira said. “She leads by example. Every second of every day she works hard. She’s special and we’re going to really miss her.”