Benson girls hold off fighting Crusaders
In the first half, the Benson girls were a challenge.
In the second half, they met and overcame a challenge.
The Portland Interscholastic League Techsters, ranked third in the state, jumped on No. 6 Jesuit early, then fought off the Crusaders' push to win a Thursday night Class 6A quarterfinal 53-38 at Chiles Center.
"They took a punch," Benson coach Eric Knox said of his players' ability to survive Jesuit's comeback bid.
Benson advanced to the 8:15 p.m. Friday semifinal against No. 7 Sheldon, which upset No. 2 Tigard 45-41.
No. 1 Southridge will meet No. 5 Beaverton in the 6:30 p.m. Friday semifinal. Southridge topped No. 8 South Medford 48-29 while the Metro League rival Beavers, ranked fifth, bumped No. 4 West Linn 50-42.
Benson's play on Thursday only further validated its status as one of the top programs in the state. The Techsters have over recent years grown from a young athletic team with mucho potential into a seasoned unit with multiple weapons plus the same tenacious defense.
That defense was key when Thursday's game wound up being on the line.
"We got back to Benson basketball. Our bread and butter is defense, that's what we do," said 6-0 senior guard/wing Ciera Ellington. "We just knew we had to pick up (the Crusaders) quicker and close out on them. That made our offense come together, and it slowed them down a little bit."
The combination was a bit too much for spunky Jesuit to topple, even though the Crusaders found their shooting touch in time to throw a scare into the Techsters.
"They made it a little hairy," Benson coach Eric Knox said. "But our experience no doubt paid off. We have a bunch of smart girls."
Benson (23-4) had three players score in double figures. Ellington posted a game-best 23 points, 6-1 sophomore forward Aujae Yoakum added 12 points with seven rebounds and 6-1 senior guard/wing Tayler Lyday had 11 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Lyday also had four of Benson's six blocks.
And 5-4 senior point guard Makenzy Porter was in the middle of a lot of it, dishing out six clever assists to lead all players in that category.
"We're super versatile," Ellington said. "Our bigs can do a lot. And Makenzy drives like she's 6-3."
Jesuit (21-5) got 17 points from 5-6 senior guard Savannah Corradini, who made 5 of 12 attempts from beyond the arc.
Bella Mori, a 5-11 senior wing, battled for a game-high 10 rebounds.
Benson scored the first seven points and led 16-5 after one quarter. The lead grew to 21 at 26-5 with three minutes left in the first half.
"We looked like ourselves," Knox said. "I always tell my kids, 'Be the best version of yourselves.' We were attacking, we were pushing the ball, and our defense — that's our identity. We were detailed. We played the way we wanted to play."
Jesuit trailed 30-14 at halftime (outscored 14-0 in the paint) before outscoring the Techsters 19-9 in the third quarter as their spot-up 3's from the corners and elsewhere began to fall.
"Even when we were down big, we were calm at halftime," Jesuit coach Jason Lowery said. "We knew we could play better.
"Our girls are always going to fight. If we lose basketball games, it's because of basketball, not because of attitude or effort. The fight is always going to be there. That's a non-negotiable with us."
Knox said the Techsters may have gotten a little tired during that second-half stretch.
"Everybody knows we don't run that deep," he said. "The kids got a little exhausted on the college court, and we came out flat the third quarter.
"And they (the Crusaders) spread the floor, which is a lot of ground to cover, and got their shots, and every time one went in their confidence grew."
Benson's lead was trimmed to 39-33 going into the fourth quarter.
"Jason Lowery is a good friend and a phenomenal coach, a good whose brain I pick all the time," Knox said, "so I knew they were going to make an adjustment and a run, because he's too good of a coach and those girls are seniors and too good of players.
"They can shoot the lights out. They play with grit and heart.
"I was extremely nervous before the game. This is the state tournament. Anything can happen. These eight teams are great teams."
But the Techsters reestablished their defense and went on a momentum-changing 7-0 run in the first 2:55 of the final frame.
"We're definitely more mature," Ellington said, comparing this year's team to other recent Benson clubs. "We know what it takes to get here, we know what it takes to keep a lead and we know what it takes to beat a top team."
As it turned out, the Crusaders' early shooting woes (a 2-for-18 start from the field that included a 1-for-9 mark from beyond the arc) left them with too much ground to make up.
"We didn't get the 3's early, and worse than that we had some finishes that didn't go down," Lowery said. "We can't open the game and miss layups against a good team like Benson. When you've got a chance at a zero-footer, you have to finish."
Defensively, the Crusaders got better as the game went on, though.
"The first half, we were spread out a little too much on their shooters, and they did a great job of carving us up inside," Lowery said. "Second half, we had a lot more resistance around the basket."
Benson's last loss was 55-50 to Southridge on Dec. 29. Since then, the Techsters have won 19 in a row.
Sheldon will take a 13-game winning streak into the semis.
"We've never played Sheldon, but they're disciplined, they work hard, they press, they play with a lot of IQ, and they're extremely physical," Knox said.