ELKO — With the state tournament here, every team left standing is just two wins away from a state championship — and one loss away from season a season coming to a premature end.
The Elko girls basketball team hopes to be that last team standing as the program returns to the state semifinals for the second straight year, and with plenty of experience back, the Lady Indians have high expectations this weekend.
“We’ve got these girls that are ready to win a state championship,” Tribe coach Camille Larsen said. “We asked them how they felt and they said they’re tired of coming in state runner-up.”
The Lady Indians made it to the state title game last year and after playing an even first half, they were overwhelmed in the second half by rival Spring Creek. Two years ago, they lost in the quarterfinal to Truckee in overtime. The team is also comprised of athletes from other sports such as soccer, which has won two state runner-up trophies in the past three years.
“They know what to expect when they get there,” Larsen said of her team’s trip back to state. “They’ll have a better idea of how things run, the spotlights, announcing, everything else.”
In order to get the spotlight cast on them, the Lady Indians (20-7) will need to make it past Faith Lutheran in the semifinals Friday night. Del Sol High School in Las Vegas will host the semis and then the venue will switch to the Orleans Arena for the championship game, which brings all the pregame festivities.
Despite last weekend’s loss, the Indians were able to get back Desirea Danner. The sophomore had to be helped off the court in a regional quarterfinal game against Dayton, but she was able to go last weekend and scored 13 points off the bench in the two games.
The Lady Crusaders, who are 19-8 this season, won the Southern I-A regional against Boulder City and have an offense built around passing the ball well. According to maxpreps, they average 16 field goals and 13 assists per game. They also rebound the ball well at 26.8 per contest.
After playing in the regional final, Larsen traveled to Las Vegas to scout the southern regional final and got some valuable tape on Faith Lutheran. She said the Crusaders played a 2-3 against Boulder City the entire game. She has also watched the film on them from early in the season when they beat Spring Creek by five.
“They’ve got a good post player and a couple of guards that handle the ball really well,” Larsen said. “I think we match up well with them height wise, offensively and defensively.”
Point guard Julia Benko leads the Crusaders at 11.6 points per game and is the engine that makes the team go. She dishes out 4.6 assists and grabs 2.1 steals per game.
The primary recipients of Benko’s passes are fellow seniors Taylor Hammer and Samantha Leonard. Hammer, who stands 6 feet tall, shoots 42 percent from the field and averages 9.1 ppg, while Leonard, 5-9, is third in scoring at 7.2 ppg. The inside duo averages 11.6 rebounds combined.
“Faith Lutheran ran most of their offense off their big girl,” Larsen said. “They get it into her off a back door or a high post. They try to give her options, and if nothing, she’ll put the ball on the floor.”
Of course, the southern teams prefer to run a half-court offensive game, while teams like Elko and Spring Creek prefer to stretch things out with full-court pressure.
The Indians have plenty of weapons to match-up with Faith Lutheran. In the post, Anna DuBois has been a steady three-year starter and leads the team in scoring (9.4) and rebounding (5.8). Also along the front line is Marissa Elquist, who has played some of her best basketball of the season the last two weeks. The junior has averaged 8.3 ppg during the last four games.
A wildcard in the lineup is RaeLynn Forcella, who plays practically every position on the court. The senior averages 6.5 ppg and is highly effective at running the point. Also in the backcourt is another senior Erin Nielsen, who is second on the team in scoring at 8.5 ppg. Shay Digenan rounds out the starting five.
An X-factor for the Tribe all season has also been the play of key bench players. Danner is third in scoring (8.5) and leads in steals (3.3), while Josalynn Harris is fourth in rebounding (3.9) off the bench. Sophomores Emily Elquist and Hailee Simpson provide additional depth as well.
“We have to go down there and play our ‘A’ game,” Larsen said. “It’s the state tournament. You can’t play anything less and get by.”
Especially, if the Tribe can take down Faith Lutheran because the winner of the Spring Creek-Boulder City game awaits Saturday in the title tilt.
While the Indians are thoroughly familiar with the Spartans after playing them six times in the last two years, the Eagles are a relative unknown. The two programs have not met since the 1988-89 season.
Boulder City’s offense revolves around several players capable of putting the ball in the basket. Whitney Barlow and Alyssa Ybarra each average double figures at 16.9 and 10.8 ppg, respectively.
“They have a pretty good press,” Larsen said. “They like to trap, and they forced a lot of turnovers,” Larsen said of the Eagles’ game against Faith Lutheran.
Katlyn Daly, Mallory Bird and Avalon Frantz are also key contributors.
If it is Spring Creek again, the two rivals will meet in the championship game for the second straight season.
“We’ve got to make some dang free throws,” Larsen said of potential fourth meeting with Spring Creek. “We’ve got to start a little stronger in the first quarter. We need better shot selection.”
The Lady Indians hope to hang up their first state title since 1995. Their quest starts at 6:20 p.m. Friday.