NAMPA • Hannah Walker didn’t try to hide her tears or emotions in the locker room. She wasn’t ashamed or self-conscious. The sobs her teammates saw were a year in the making.
The Richfield senior missed last year’s 1ADII state championship run due to a major knee injury. She was there physically but didn’t partake in all the joy the experience should have offered. Walker came back this year, clunky brace and all, hoping for a chance step on the Idaho Center floor as a participant.
After the team lost star point guard Mariah Lezamiz due to a torn ACL, the odds of Walker’ dream dwindled. The team entered the North Side Conference Tournament as the No. 3 seed and did not take the district title, making it to state by virtue of winning a second-place game over Castleford. Richfield was hardly a lock to get a chance to defend its title.
But when the dust settled Friday afternoon against Rockland at Nampa High School, Walker was able to cry. Because, despite the odds, the Tigers did it.
Behind a stellar defense that held the Bulldogs to just 13.3 percent shooting from the field, the Tigers throttled Rockland in the state semifinals, 40-18, to earn a return trip to the Idaho Center and defend their 1ADII championship against rival Dietrich on Saturday morning.
“I cried,” Walker said with a laugh. “When I realized I got to be with my team and actually play this year. (It was) a tear jerker.”
The same group that defeated Dietrich for the title a year ago is nearly all in tact for this year’s go-around, a year older and wider. That senior leadership came up big time Friday afternoon in a game that hardly resembled a work of art.
“The natural leaders step up, teammates recognize them, and we talk about getting people the ball in good situations. they’ve been here, so they know: its a basketball game. So it’s really beneficial,” Richfield coach Buck Hendren said. “They don’t panic”
The game was devoid of fire works early, as the teams combined to score just 11 points in the first quarter and 23 the entire first half. Richfield turned the ball over nine times, shot 22.2 percent from the field and missed all eight of its 3-point attempts. The Tigers locked down on defense, though, holding Rockland to a staggering 3-for-28 from the field.
Behind five points from April Wood, a struggling Richfield team managed to take a 15-8 lead into the break. Hendren said that Rockland’s style of play was reminiscent of conference-foe Castleford’s. Both teams depend on strong point guard play and a dominant player in the post. Because of that, the Tigers were able to revert back to an old defensive game plan with extraordinary results.
“That’s basically what we went back to, tried to do the same stuff we did against Castleford,” said Hendren. “With our emphasis on defense, even when you have games like that, you come out in the first half and you only score 15, you can not necessarily feel comfortable, but you can be up by seven points because of your defense.”
Scoring droughts continued into the third quarter for both Richfield and Rockland, with the teams scoring just six points and five, respectively. Richfield increased its lead to 18 midway through the fourth, highlighted by an off-balance and-1 layup from senior Hannah Walker. Late steals and free throws sealed the deal for the Tigers, who advance to the state title game for the second-time in as many years. Though the team shot under 28 percent for the game and did not make a single 3-pointer, Richfield dominated Rockland from start to finish.
Considering the question marks that surrounded the Tigers without Lezamiz, it wouldn’t be shocking if the team was surprised to be in its current position. But that was not the case in Friday’s game or at any point during the season. They have nearly seen it all.
“We’re able to stay calm in these tough situations. We know that, in the end, we’ll get it done. We try not to freak out,” said Wood, who scored a game-high 12 points. “I knew that it was going to be a lot of hard work when Mariah went down. And I think we just kind of game together as a team and figured out what we needed to do without her.”
The win sets up a rematch of last year’s title game between the North Side Conference heavy-weights. The Blue Devils won two of three meetings this year, including one in the district tournament that put the Tigers out of contention. Getting another chance at Dietrich is sure to be sweet. The chance to even be playing in the title game is almost too much for Walker. As seniors, she and Wood are relishing the chance to suit up one more time for their school.
“It’s definitely going to be very emotional,” said Wood. “We just have to come ready to play, just always try to stay level.”
Hendren isn’t ready to say he’s surprised the Tigers are back at the Idaho Center for another chance for a championship. But if you had told him a month ago that his team would be where it is, even he would have told you it was improbable.
“I’d have said it would be a tough, tough battle to get here, especially getting through Castleford and Dietrich. We knew that would be tough. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t have believed you, because I knew this team always had the ability and have always stepped up when they’ve needed to,” Hendren said with a coy smile. “But I’d have said, yeah, we’d definitely have some work to do in front of us and have some things go our way.”
Richfield and Dietrich will play for the state title at Idaho Center on Friday at 9:30 a.m.
Richfield 40, Rockland 18
Richfield 40, Rockland 18
Richfield 6 9 6 19 — 40
Rockland 5 3 5 5 — 18
Wood 12, Walker 8, Rivas 7, Williams 6, Ta. King 6, B. Buckner 1
Totals: 11 18-28 40
O’Brien 4, McClanahan 3, Freeman 3, Jensen 3, Robinson 3, Turnbeaugh 2
Totals: 6 5-10 18
3-point field goals: Richfield 0, Rockland 0
Team fouls: Richfield 15, Rockland 25
Fouled out: O’Brien, Freeman (Rockland)