Techsters triumph at the end
Move over, Tom Brady, and all you quarterbacks with the nerves and talent to direct the winning drive in the last two minutes.
That kind of clutch also resides in a group of girls from Benson High.
You heard of Lillard Time? Friday night at Chiles Center, there was Techsters Time.
The Benson Techsters, with their basketball season and dreams on the line, performed some late heroics that will go on their school's list of sporting lore.
They dug deep and landed the knockout punch in the 15th round of a heavyweight fight with Sheldon. They pulled out a 58-52 win and advanced to Saturday's 8:30 p.m. Class 6A title game against Southridge.
With little more than two minutes to go, things weren't looking great for the Techsters. The Portland Interscholastic League champs were in the fight of their 2019 tournament lives. The score was 50-50. One of Benson's top players, Tayler Lyday, had fouled out with 5:02 remaining. Another Tech star, top scorer Ciera Ellington, was on thin ice with four fouls.
It looked like the seventh-ranked Irish might find the gold at the end of the rainbow. One night after knocking off No. 2 Tigard, they were close to an upset of No. 3 Benson.
But the Techsters refused to accept that outcome.
"It felt like it was 50-50, but to us, we knew we had it, we knew we were going to outwork them at the end," Benson junior guard Bria Dixson said. "I think what it came down to was just heart."
After Sheldon pulled even at 50-50, the Techsters made a handful of big plays in a decisive 8-0, 90-second run.
First, it was Ellington taking offensive matters into her own hands. The 6-0 senior guard drove hard for a layup through traffic that gave Tech a 52-50 lead with 2:03 remaining.
Next, Ellington and 6-1 junior forward Aujae Yoakum made a steal as Sheldon tried to run its offense. Ellington took off for the basket again in transition, then dished off to trailing 6-2 senior post Imani Harris for a layup and 54-50 lead with 1:38 on the clock.
On its next possession, Sheldon went inside for a shot. Yoakum was there to block it and give the ball back to Benson.
The Irish had to foul, but after Dixson missed the front end of a one-and-one, Harris beat the Irish to the rebound and went up for a put-back basket. Now it was 56-50 with 49 seconds left.
Moments later, Yoakum blocked another Irish attempt, and Dixson grabbed the rebound.
Dixson pushed the ball up the court with no hesitation. Her half-court pass off the dribble found Ellington for an in-stride layup with 33 seconds to go. That was the final blow.
Sheldon hit a short jumper with three seconds left, but time ran out, and the Irish left with a spot in the third-place game against Beaverton at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.
Sheldon (24-4) had given the Techsters plenty to handle. The Irish served notice by taking an 11-5 lead in the first 2 1/2 minutes. Benson stormed back for a 24-16 lead after one quarter, but the lead never got any larger.
Sheldon was within 32-30 at the half, then went in front 37-32. The rest of the way, there were six ties and three lead changes.
Ellington finished with a game-high 23 points, going 10 of 18 from the field.
"Ciera was awesome," Benson coach Eric Knox said. "She is probably the best all-around player in the state. She runs point, she can post up, she can shoot the 3, she can go by you, she can get a rebound, she guards the best players. She's that do-all-things type of player. She showed that tonight."
Dixson, the sharpshooting transfer from Franklin, came off the bench for 14 points, making three 3-pointers and helping the half-court offense run well enough to win.
"Her shooting was key for us, but so was her IQ," Knox said. "She's more than a 3-point shooter, and she played well off Ciera."
And then there was Harris, another key cog whose closing baskets were critical.
"Ciera and Imani, at the end, were the reason we got this victory," Knox said.
Benson will take a 24-4 record into Saturday's final against heavily favored Southridge.
The Skyhawks (25-3) have been dominant, as they were in beating Metro League rival Beaverton 46-30 in their semifinal.
Southridge's long, stifling defense, with 6-5 junior star Cameron Brink in the middle to block shots, held the Beavers to 25-percent field-goal shooting while letting Beaverton get to the free-throw line only four times.
Southridge will be looking for its third consecutive state championship.
Benson, which will be going for its first, lost to the Skyhawks 46-27 in the 2018 title game and again 55-50 in a holiday tournament this season.
In last year's 6A tournament, Benson was the No. 7 seed knocking of No. 3 Beaverton, 54-53, in the semifinals.
"A lot of people thought we were lucky, but winning tonight just shows we're supposed to be here, just as much as Southridge," Ellington said after the Sheldon game. "Southridge is a great team, everybody knows that. But we're also a great team, and we've always felt we were meant for this moment."
Brink has committed to Stanford. She has helped the U.S. win a gold medal at the FIBA under-17 World Cup.
"You play her honest," said Ellington, who has signed with Loyola Marymount. "You don't play her as Cameron Brink, the All-American or Stanford commit. You play her as a player. She puts her jersey on, we put our jerseys on. She's a D-I player, we have D-I players."
The Benson strategy going into the final probably will be to run as much as possible.
"We've got to trust the work we've put in and just play our game," Dixson said. "They cannot run with us."
Southridge has the size and length, Knox noted.
"They're long like us. Well, they're a little longer — they've got Cameron. You can't simulate her. She's just a fabulous player. We've got to utilize our speed, our ball movement. We have a saying about that — ping, ping, zip, zip. If we do that, I think we give ourselves a chance."
"If we want to win, we can pull it out," Ellington said. "But we have to play Benson basketball 24-7, for four quarters."