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Trojans earn league's top seed, Cougars to hosting a playoff game for the first time in 25 years

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - From left: Kennedy's Ellie Cantu and Sophia Carley, along with Gervais' Araceli Vasquez and Isabel Vasquez were named to the Tri-River Conference First Team at the end of Saturday's game.For the past half-decade, the Kennedy girls basketball team has become one of the premier 2A programs in the state.

Having won state championships in 2016 and 2018, three consecutive league titles, and 40 straight league games against Tri-River opponents, the Trojans have set the bar that other programs aspire to beat.

As one of those aspiring programs, the Gervais Cougars has risen through the ranks during Kennedy's run to become the top contender to the Tri-River crown this year. The Cougars were eager for an opportunity to dethrone the Trojans on their home court at Saturday's Tri-River Tournament championship game.

"I think beating Kennedy this season would almost mean more than going to Pendleton or winning a state title because that's the one we need to beat," Gervais head coach Kyle Buse said. "They've set the bar. If we can get by them, we can get by anybody."

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Gervais senior Isabel Vasquez challenges Kennedy senior Sophia Carley in the lane in Saturday's Tri-River Conference championship game.But the Trojans proved just how difficult that task is, taking Gervais' best shot and rallying to post a double-digit lead in the second half en route to a 53-48 victory. It was the second straight game that has come down to the wire between the two league rivals separated by just a few miles of farmland in Marion County, making it all the more difficult to stomach for the Cougars to come up just short.

"They put a lot of effort into it during the week, and when they can't come out on the right side of it, it hurts a little bit," Buse said following the loss. "We get another opportunity, and we know that if we miss out on that opportunity, we might not get another chance to play them."

The Cougars came out eager to show what they had learned from their last game against the Trojans, a 45-40 loss at Gervais High School that was decided in the final minute.

Kennedy opened the contest with a 7-4 lead after the first two minutes, only for Gervais to go on a 9-2 run to take the lead behind a balanced offense from juniors Katie Hanson, Araceli Vasquez and Lily Welburn.

"We had some confusion, we were doing our best not to switch on certain girls, and they were doing their best assuming certain switches were happening," Kennedy co-head coach Pete Hall said. "It was a battle. They're aggressive, and so are we."

Gervais ended the quarter up 17-14, but the Trojans punched back hard in the second quarter. After a driving layup by Elise Suing to tie the score at 19-19, Kennedy junior Hailey Arritola hit back-to-back shots, including a 3-pointer near the Gervais bench to cap a 7-0 run that put the Trojans up 24-19.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Kennedy's Sophia Carley led all scorers with 15 points and was one of three Trojans to score in double figures along with Hailey Arritola (14) and Ellie Cantu (11)."We worked really hard to get her offensively involved," Hall said, "She is a very good offensive player. Being out five games this year with her foot injury, we're trying to get her back and established."

The Cougars fought back to pull within one, with Hanson scoring the final three points to make it a 27-26 game in Kennedy's favor going into the break.

The Trojans pushed hard coming out of halftime, going on a 10-0 run in the first two and a half minutes to pull ahead by double digits for the first time. Vasquez stopped the run with her second field goal of the game, followed by back-to-back shots from reserves Izzy Boyd and Sofia Contreras to pull within 37-32.

But two field goals in the final minute by Arritola and Ellie Cantu gave Kennedy a 41-32 edge heading into the final period.

"It's the very little things," Buse said on the team's loss, "We have to match them point for point, and I think we stepped up to that challenge."

Kennedy pushed their lead to 51-39 in the fourth quarter before Boyd went on a streak of seven consecutive points for the Cougars to make it a 51-46 game with a minute left to play.

But the Trojan defense was just sound enough to prevent the comeback, giving Kennedy its third straight league tournament title.

Hanson led the Cougars with 13 points while Kennedy had three players in double figures — Carley (15), Arritola (14) and Cantu (11).

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Kennedy's Hailey Arritola scored 12 of the Trojans first 24 points and finished with 14 in the team's win over Gervais on Saturday.

STATE PLAYOFFS

Both teams earned home-court advantage in the first round of the state playoffs.

No. 1 Kennedy (22-4) will host No.1 6 Heppner (14-9), while No. 4 Gervais (22-4) will take on No. 13 Stanfield (19-7). Both games will be held on Friday, Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.

For Gervais, it's the first home state playoff game in a generation.

"It's been 25 years since we hosted," Buse said. "We haven't been back to the final site in 25 years, so those are a lot of things we hope we can overcome by hosting a playoff game and getting to the final site. It's going to be a fun four days of preparation."

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Junior wing Katie Hanson led the Cougars in scoring for the second straight game, dropping 13 points against the Trojans.

CONFERENCE AWARDS

Carley was named Conference Player of the Year for the third consecutive year, leading six Kennedy players to earn all-league awards.

Cantu joined her on the First Team as did Gervais' Araceli Vasquez and Isabel Vasquez.

Arritola and Reese Hall represented the Trojans on the Second Team, while Welburn earned a nod for the Cougars.

Hanson (Gervais) and Suing (Kennedy) earned Third Team Honors and Kennedy's Grace Schaecher picked up an Honorable Mention.


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