NAMPA — A few members of the Oakley High School girls basketball team were already in tears, sharing hugs with one another before the final buzzer sounded.
The moment, and the vengeance, was sweet for the No. 2-ranked Hornets.
In Friday’s 1A Division I state semifinal game, they earned a 38-31 victory over No. 3 Lapwai, which beat Oakley in last year’s semifinals. The Hornets (24-1) advanced to a date with No. 1 Prairie (24-2) in the state title game.
In a game that Oakley head coach Matt Payton said was defined by “grit,” the Hornets used a drive-first mentality to fuel an offensive attack that led to 26 first-half points.
Brittany Hardy led that effort, scoring 10 first-half points, including 6-for-7 from the free-throw line.
“We just worked as a team,” she said. “My teammates passed the ball well, and I just finished for my team.”
Rachael Mitton added seven points in the first half and finished with a game-high 16, but she racked up fouls. That’s when his bench showed its strength.
“Our bench players stepped up big for us,” Payton said. “With Rachael and Makinlee (Cranney) in some foul trouble, they gave us great minutes.”
Cranney, a frequent top scorer for the Hornets, played more of a facilitator role on Friday and recorded no points in the game.
Oakley was helped by poor shooting from Lapwai, which scored only five points in the first quarter and ended the half shooting 21 percent (3-for-14) from the field. Payton and Hardy said defense played a big part in disrupting the Wildcat offense.
“Sure, their shots were off the mark, and we’re going to take that,” Payton said, “but we gave them no easy looks down low. They rely a lot on making layups, and we made it hard on them.”
“I noticed throughout the game that when we communicated well on defense, it frustrated the other team,” Hardy said. “So we tried to do that well.”
It was no easier for the Wildcats in the second half, during which they went 4-for-30 from the field, but it wasn’t easy for the Hornets, either.
Part of the concern was their leading scorer, Hardy, going down midway through the third quarter on a blocking foul. Payton said he and his staff checked her for a concussion, and she was cleared.
Hardy came back in the fourth quarter to make arguably the biggest shot of the game.
Lapwai was cutting into the lead, and the large Wildcat fan base was drowning the court in noise. With the Hornets up 33-28, the closest margin since the first quarter, Hardy took a swipe on the arm, heaved the ball up and dropped it in for an and-one opportunity, which she converted with 2:30 left.
“I just tried to tune out the noise and negativity,” she said. “We all did that well.”
Mitton added another layup with a minute to play, and Oakely held on to reach its first state championship game since 1931, according to Payton.
The Hornet fan base sure showed up to see that title bid get punched, with nearly the entire lower deck of Columbia High School gymnasium stands filled up with red and white. Lapwai also filled out its section, and Payton said the fans made the game that much better.
“Lapwai brings a great crowd, and we had one, too,” he said. “We were proud to have the opportunity to represent southern Idaho, and it showed.”
Oakley will take on Prairie, which defeated Shoshone in the semifinals 51-38, in the title game to determine the ultimate No. 1 and No. 2 teams in 1A-DI, after the two teams battled for first-place votes in the media poll throughout the second half of the season.
Prairie reached the title game for the fifth straight year with its win over Shoshone. Oakley has a lot of history in the state tournament, as well, with three appearances in the past four years.
“You’ve got to have some experience to really make a run at state,” Payton said. “This is an experienced group.”
This all comes after a 33-30 loss in the district tournament to Shoshone, which Payton said “woke us up a little bit.” He is proud of his team for bouncing back and reaching the title game.
For Hardy, a senior leader, it’s a dream come true to have a chance for the title on Saturday.
“We’ve worked our entire high school career for this,” she said. “It’s so exciting.”