NAMPA — The night before the Oakley High School girls basketball team took on Prairie for the 1A Division I state championship, Rachael Mitton cracked open a fortune cookie from her dinner at Panda Express and read the slip of paper inside: “Your path may be difficult, but will be rewarding.”
The fortune cookie was dead on.
Mitton hit a contested jumper with five seconds to play, and the Hornets held on for their first state championship in 88 years as they beat the Prairie Pirates 33-31 Saturday at the Ford Idaho Center.
The game-winning play was drawn up in a late timeout, and the Hornets have relied on it throughout the season: the Rach 55.
Off the inbounds, the ball went around the key, from Makinlee Cranney to Liz Hardy to Jaclyn Wybenga, who pitched the ball low to Mitton, posted at the left side of the paint. Mitton took one dribble, whipped to the right and shot a slight fadeaway that ticked off the back of the rim and in.
Mitton said she couldn’t breathe during that shot.
“Normally, I shoot a layup on that play, so the weird fadeaway shot was really stressful,” she said. “Then it bounced off the rim, so I thought it was going to be short for sure. I was terrified, but it went in.”
India Peery of Prairie got the last attempt at stealing the game from Oakley, shooting a long 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds left on the clock, but the shot banged off the right side of the rim as the buzzer blared.
The miss sealed the title for Oakley, its first since 1930, the year Brittany and Liz Hardy’s great-great aunt played for the Hornets. However, the Hornets had to do it without Brittany Hardy in the last quarter, as she injured her leg attempting a buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter.
She said it was tough to watch from the bench, but she trusted her team.
“I had faith in the them and knew that if the bench is motivated, the team team will be motivated,” she said. “We knew we had to keep going no matter what.”
Two of the biggest bench contributors were Wybenga and Liz Hardy. Wybenga ended up playing all but 2:19 in the second half, scoring four second-half points, and Liz Hardy gave the Hornets a full eight minutes in the fourth quarter, adding three points and drawing two fouls.
Wybenga said it didn’t take much of a speech from Payton to get her and Liz motivated to put in those tough, late minutes.
“He just told us that we needed to keep working hard,” she said. “We all knew that we needed to step up.”
In a very low-scoring game, the bulk of Oakley’s 33 points came in the fourth quarter (13). But this title win was less about the Hornets’ offense than their defense, something Payton said is an overlooked part of the high school game.
“Let’s face it: everybody wants to come watch offense, so it’s hard to get some girls to play defense,” he said. “I’m so proud of our team, though. They bought in and said, ‘Hey, let’s go play some defense and get it done.’”
Thirty-one points was the fewest Prairie, ranked No. 1 in the 1A-DI state media poll, scored in a game all season. It shot 29 percent from the field (9-for-31) and only hit one 3-pointer after making four long balls in its semifinal win over Shoshone. Prairie also posted zero points off the bench.
“We worked super hard on our defense,” Wybenga said. “We watched film and knew what they were going to do.”
No. 2 Oakley struggled with its shooting early in the game, shooting 3-for-17 in the first half and trailing 11-8 at the break. But Payton wasn’t expecting his team to go out and start draining shots quickly.
“We deliberately tried to slow the game down so we could get some reads on the defense, how to attack it,” he said. “They kind of got in our grill, but when we needed execution, when we needed buckets, we had some girls step up.”
Cranney, who scored four points and dished out four assists, said that Friday’s semifinal game against Lapwai, the three-time defending state champion coming into this year’s tournament, really helped Oakley prepare for what the Pirates would run.
“They run their defenses the same style, so I think we were able to take a little bit of that and use it on our side,” Cranney said.
The Hornets hit the shots that counted, scoring 11-of-15 field goals in the second half, spearheaded by strong post moves by Mitton, who scored a team-high 12 points, and clutch jumpers by multiple players.
“We did the things that we needed to to win the game,” Payton said. “We knew it was a slugfest. What more do you want the game to be, really? Hitting a shot in the last five seconds to win. It’s great.”
Oakley reached the state tournament three of the last four years, yet the group of five seniors never tasted the title game until Saturday. Now, they have the first-place trophy to lug back home to Cassia County, and they couldn’t imagine a better graduation gift.
“It’s really surreal,” Cranney said. “It’s just so rewarding to have all that hard work pay off because it is hard. It’s three or four months of every single day working, and it gets long and tiring, but it’s just so worth it.”
“It’s crazy to look back on all the work we’ve put in together,” Mitton said. “We’ve gone through some rough stuff, but we gutted it out together.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Oakley won its last state title in 1931, according to Matt Payton. Payton looked through the school's archives and discovered the year was actually 1930. The story has been updated. We regret the error.
Oakley 33, Prairie 31
Oakley 6 2 12 13 — 33
Prairie 3 8 8 12 — 31
OAKLEY (33) — Jaclyn Wybenga 6, Brittany Hardy 8, Liz Hardy 3, Makinlee Cranney 4, Rachel Mitton 12.
PRAIRIE (31) — Josie Peery 11, Leah Higgins 13, Sydney Bruner 1, India Peery 6.