White River seals its ninth trip to state in 11 years

Brooke Paulson and the White River High girls basketball team sewed up another trip to state with a 71-66 win over Hazen.

The White River High girls punched their ticket to the Class 3A state basketball tournament with a 71-66 victory Feb. 25 over the Hazen Highlanders.

The Hornets needed just a single victory in the West Central/Southwest bidistrict tournament to qualify for state.

Now that they have secured a berth in the March 11-14 state tournament at the Tacoma Dome, the White River girls can concentrate on securing a top berth through the remainder of the bidistrict tourney. The Hornets next see action at 6 p.m. Friday when they play the Yelm Tornadoes at Auburn High School. Yelm also played Feb. 25, defeating Bonney Lake 60-50.

The Tornadoes, who won the Western Cascade Conference championship, are heading to the state tournament for the first time since 1991.

White River, on the other hand, will be making a state appearance for the ninth time in 11 seasons. The Hornets did not earn a state trip last year, nor did they make the show in 2004.

If the Hornets defeat Yelm, they will play at 8 p.m. Saturday for the bidistrict championship against the winner of a semifinal matchup between Kennedy and Prairie High. If they fall to Yelm they will play the Kennedy/Prairie loser at 6 p.m. Saturday. Either way, White River will play both days at Auburn High.

The victory over Hazen didn’t come easily, particularly during a mistake-prone first half. The Hornets trailed most of the way during the initial 16 minutes and headed into the locker room on the short end of a 35-29 score.

“I thought we came out a little tight,” Hornet coach Chris Gibson said, admitting that the state tourney implications might have played a role. “We just made too many mental mistakes.”

The second half saw things remain close, thanks to a pair of White River outbursts. The Hornets went on a 12-2 tear to open the third period, building a 41-37 lead, then enjoyed a 13-1 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters. Hazen had again pulled in front, but White River’s second rally not only erased the Highlanders’ advantage, but built a 60-52 lead in the process.

The Hornets’ final field goal came with a little more than three minutes on the clock and White River connected on enough free throws down the stretch to keep the lead. The Hornets stepped to the stripe a dozen times in the final 2 minutes, 45 seconds and gathered seven key points.

I was really pleased with the way we came out in the second half,” Gibson said, noting that his squad was guilty of just eight turnovers after intermission. The Hornets had been charged with a whopping 17 turnovers during the opening 16 minutes.

White River enjoyed a fourth-quarter spark from Carly McCutchen, who poured in nine points during the final period and finished with 11. Megan McKune paced the Hornets with 20 points while Kendall Williams contributed 14 and Brooke Paulson added 17.

The Hornets knew the key to defeating Hazen was to slow down Airashay Rogers, the Highlandeers’ high-scoring freshman. She torched the Hornets for 17 points in the first half and 11 of those in the second quarter alone. Rogers finished with a game-high 27 points before fouling out with 1:19 to play.

Reach Kevin Hanson at khanson@courierherald.com.