The first meeting between the No. 5 Kennedy girls basketball team and No. 3 Gervais had all the makings of a knock-down, drag-out battle between an up-and-coming Cougars and the two-time state champion Trojans.
And while the contest was indeed physical, in the end, Kennedy showed why it remains the cream of the Tri-River Conference, pulling away for a 42-23 victory over Gervais to stay unbeaten in the league this year.
"Gervais was definitely a good ball club," Kennedy co-head coach Kerry Hall said. "They make us nervous. I really think Gervais is in that top-tier of teams."
The Cougars came into the game looking to prove they were every bit as worthy of their top-five ranking, and after an opening 3-pointer from Araceli Vasquez, appeared to be ready to make that statement.
But the Trojans came prepared to handle a Gervais offense that had eclipsed 50 points in all but two of their games coming into the game. Using a pressure defense that swarmed the Cougars' attempts at entry passes into the paint, Kennedy coaxed several turnovers out of Gervais, keeping the Cougars out of rhythm and holding them to a season-low total in the loss.
Following Vasquez's three-pointer, the Trojans went on a 14-1 run for the quarter, going to senior Sophia Carley and sophomore Reese Hall to take a 14-4 lead heading into the second period.
"We told the girls we had to play lock-down defense, and I think our girls did a pretty good job of that," Kerry Hall said. "We worked a lot on defense last night on practice, talked about helping the helper and being aggressive in the right ways, and I think the girls just put it all together tonight and played great team defense. They were just everywhere."
Gervais was able to settle into a groove in the second quarter, trading baskets with the Trojans. Ellie Cantu put herself on the board with a pair of buckets to open the second quarter, which were answered by Isabel Vasquez and Katie Hanson.
Cantu added her third bucket of the quarter, and Carley followed with a basket of her own and a pair of free throws to give the Trojans a 26-10 lead with 1:33 left before halftime.
The two teams opened the second half looking to dial up the defense even more, with Gervais slowly chipping away at the deficit. Lilly Welburn connected on a pair of free throws for the Cougars' first points of the half, and freshman Izzy Boyd responded with a bucket of her own to cut the score to 29-17.
Kennedy didn't score its first points until 3:23 left in the quarter on a basket from Carley, but the Cougars answered on their next possession on another score from Welburn to make it 31-19.
That's where the game remained for the rest of the quarter until the Trojans chipped in a few last-second points from Cantu, along with a buzzer-beater from Grace Schaecher to make it 35-19 heading into the final period.
The fourth quarter largely turned into a free throw battle, with Gervais unable to gain ground against the swarming Kennedy defense. Araceli Vasquez scored her first points of the second half on a pair of free throws in the opening minutes, but those were the only points Gervais would score until the last 30 seconds of the game.
Meanwhile, the Trojans continued to add to their lead at the free-throw line, with Carley doing the majority of the work. The senior post went 4-of-8 from the line in the period and was 8-of-13 for the game, scoring 18 points to lead all scorers.
Cantu also hit double figures with 10, while Celi Vasquez led the Cougars with eight points.
It was an exciting contest for both teams, with Kennedy seeking an in-league foil to challenge them during the regular season. The Trojans went on to beat Santiam 46-29 in their follow-up game on Thursday, bringing their streak of league victories to 31 games, spanning three seasons.
"They make us nervous," Kerry Hall said. "The girls know they have to be ready to play, and when we go to their place, they're going to be ready for some revenge. They're going to come at us, and we've got to be ready."
Gervais returned to the win column in their final game of the week as well, traveling to Sheridan to beat the hosting Spartans 59-20 on Thursday. Celi Vasquez led the Cougars with 17 points, including three 3-pointers.
Welburn added 12 in the win, while Boyd scored 11, going 7-of-10 from the free-throw line.
Gervais (11-2, 3-1 Tri-River) was scheduled to travel to Colton (4-7, 1-2) on Tuesday, Jan. 14, and follows with back-to-back home games against Western Christian (5-6, 1-1) on Thursday and Chemawa (4-5, 2-2) on Friday.
Kennedy (11-3, 5-0) travels to Chemawa on Thursday in their lone game of the week.
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