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The Spartans keep it close before a second quarter Falcons run seals the deal.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro's Kylie Fernstrom dribbles a round a La Salle defender during the Spartans' game against the Falcons Friday, Feb. 22, at La Salle Prep.It's just not easy in the Northwest Oregon Conference. With the two top-ranked teams in the state, Wilsonville and La Salle Prep, the young Hillsboro girls have had their share of stiff tests in 2019, and one of those was last Friday night, Feb. 22, at La Salle Prep.

The Spartans fell at the hands of the No. 2-ranked Falcons 67-51, but while down in the end, Hillsboro was never out, and that — per their coach — is a testament to the character of a team getting better by the game.

"This is a team that's had its up and downs based on health and youth, but I'm really happy with how we're playing right now," said Hillsboro head coach Sara Harsin. "These girls compete, and I think this is a group that can win in the postseason."

But they have to get their first.

Based on their coach's calculations, Hillsboro will earn a spot in the upcoming playoffs with a home win over Milwaukie Tuesday, Feb. 26. And while by no means a sure thing, the Spartans' coach believes her squad has a good chance to win against the Mustangs, as well as beyond if they continue trending in the direction they're headed.

"We're finally healthy which is a good thing," said the coach with a chuckle. "This is a young team, we're growing, and the girls continue to get better, but there's a fine line between preparing and giving the girls too much. But I think we're doing well and getting better, and now's a good time to be playing well."

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro's Rian Porter goes up for a shot during the Spartans' game against the Falcons Friday, Feb. 22, at La Salle Prep.Despite falling behind 6-0 early, the Sparts didn't fold in the face of the elite competition, cutting the lead to two, 11-9, thanks in part to five straight Dylan Kem points to end the first quarter. A Rian Porter basket tied it to start the second, then a second Porter basket made it 13-13 before a decisive Falcons run changed the game entirely.

La Salle's Amanda Sisul hit a 3-pointer, Emily Niebergall followed that with a trey of her own, and then when standout guard Alyson Miura finished with a left-handed lay-in in the lane, the Falcons led 25-15 and were on their way to a 33-20 halftime edge.

"We played hard and pretty well, especially in that first half," Harsin said. "We didn't shoot particularly well, but La Salle is a good team and they had a nice run in that second quarter where they outplayed us, and that really was the difference."

The Falcons' Addison Wedin scored eight straight points and 10 of La Salle's first 12 to start the second half, and Hillsboro wouldn't get any closer than 15 en route to a 51-31 deficit after three quarters. But the Spartans continued to fight, even pulling within 10, 61-51, with roughly two minutes remaining. As a result, La Salle was forced to bring their starters back in in-order to close-out the game — which they did by way of a 6-0 run.

In the wake of the defeat, Harsin wasn't upset, but more proud of her team's response to the Falcons' stiff challenge, in addition to the obvious stride's her team had made since the teams' initial meeting a month prior.

"Last time we played La Salle our defensive rotations and overall effort was atrocious," said Harsin. "I think now we're taking more pride in our defense and we're tougher. We have more layers of defense they are rotating well."

Also, the coach commented that some of her younger girls — like freshman Margaret Shively — are getting more comfortable, which in turn is making for a more diverse and dynamic attack on the offensive end.

"All our girls are improving together and Margaret's playing with confidence and is rebounding, which is something she didn't do a lot of early," Harsin said. "She's more comfortable attacking the hoop and in general being a point guard leader, which allows us to move McKenzie to the four position."

So are they ready for the playoffs? No, because there's still a game to be played. But if they get there it'll be exciting. Right coach?

"I'll think about that then," said Harsin. "I'm focused on Milwaukie."

Hillsboro was led by Kylie Fernstrom who scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds, along with Porter who tallied 14 points, and Kem who scored 10.

La Salle's Wedin led the Falcons with 29 points on 12 of 17 from the field, including four 3-pointers.

The Spartans' game with Milwaukie is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 5:45 p.m. at Hillsboro High School.

The 5A playoffs' first round is scheduled for Saturday, March 2.

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