NAMPA — In the fifth grade, the group of seven now-seniors on the Burley High School girls basketball team told themselves they’d win the state championship.
It took a full four years of high school, filled with peaks and valleys, but the Bobcats fulfilled that promise on Saturday night when they beat the Century Diamondbacks 36-31 for the 4A state title, their first since 2007.
Burley head coach Roger Caresia said the Bobcats’ season has been defined by its grit, and it took every ounce of that tenacity to battle back from a dreadful first quarter.
The Diamondbacks were staffed with two sizeable posts, Chinma Njoku and Lexi Bull, and a smaller post to complement in Abby Christensen. They had little trouble navigating the paint, posting 10 points in both the first and second quarters.
“They’re big, and they’re good,” Caresia said. “Those two big posts are good, and I think we were probably trying to overattack them. It just took a while to adjust to play two girls who are that big and that athletic.”
Meanwhile, the Bobcats trailed 10-0 after one quarter.
“We weren’t getting good looks, and the shots we were putting up were not good shots,” Caresia said.
To make matters worse, when Burley got its first points off a layup by post Jemilynn Mahoney early in the second quarter, she came up limping and headed back to the locker room soon after. A worst case scenario for Burley: battling three talented posts with with its biggest body sidelined.
Hallie Cook took the driver’s seat to keep Burley within reach in the second quarter, scoring five points en route to a 20-9 halftime deficit.
Natalie Rice, a senior guard who helps run the offense from the point, had no doubt her team could step up in the unfortunate occasion.
“We give each other energy,” she said. “We know that no matter who’s out, we can step up.”
Though not 100 percent, Mahoney refused to stay sidelined.
“I had this mindset that I was going to play no matter what,” she said. “I wasn’t going to end my high school career that way.”
Mahoney grimaced her way through the second half, and Burley needed every ounce of that effort. In the third quarter, she posted five points, and her back-to-back buckets early in the fourth quarter cut Century’s lead to one.
“I don’t know what more to say about Jem,” Caresia said. “She epitomizes who we are as a team. That heart, guts, grit is all wrapped up in Jem. She just has that deep desire to win.”
Less than a minute after Mahoney’s baskets, Rice peeled out down the court and hit an easy transition layup to give Burley its first lead of the game and cap off a 17-5 run.
“They closed the gap, then they got confidence, then they closed it a little more,” Caresia said. “We just kept fighting.”
As good as the second-half offense was, the second-half defense was even better. Instead of attacking the post, Caresia shifted his focus to the perimeter.
“Their big girl (Njoku) is good, so we thought if we could pressure the ball more, they couldn’t get it into her,” he said. “That’s really the only adjustment we made.”
It frustrated the Diamondbacks, who ended up scoring only 11 points in the second half. But the Bobcats weren’t in the clear until the final 10 seconds, up by five.
Century kept clawing its way back, and down by six points with less than 20 seconds to play, Diamondbacks guard Olivia Holt banked in a running 3-pointer.
In those final seconds, Burley’s senior leader on offense, Sydney Pilling, found openings, dribbled around the defense and, most importantly, hit 4-of-6 free throws to complement her two second-half 3-pointers.
Pilling had been fairly quiet coming into the tournament, but after leading Burley with 11 points in the semifinals and her late-game performance in the title game, she said she peaked at the right moment.
“When shots needed to be made, I made them,” she said. “Those were important shots that needed to go in.”
The win caps off an impressive few weeks for the Bobcats (20-7). After falling to a 7-12 Pocatello team by 16 points on Jan. 25, Burley finished the season on a six-game win streak, beating No. 3 Caldwell, No. 4 Century and No. 5 Minico (twice) in its quest for the title.
“I’m speechless in some ways, (and) I’m stunned at what they’ve accomplished,” Caresia said. “They’re a tight-knit group, and they’ve fought through a lot of adversity to get this, so it makes it all sweet.”
Most of all, Caresia was proud of his seven seniors. He choked up when he announced the group in the trophy ceremony, and shared some long hugs with his tenured players.
“Other than my wife and family, I spent more time with those girls than anybody else,” he said. “I love them deeply. They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to for four years, so I’m so thrilled that it paid off for them.”
Pilling echoed the sentiment of her senior counterparts, saying the title was a picture-perfect ending to her time with the Bobcats.
“I have the best relationship with my teammates and my coach,” she said, “and ending it all with a state title, there’s really no other way I’d want to end my final season.”
Burley 36, Century 31
Century 10 10 5 6 — 31
Burley 0 9 11 16 — 36
CENTURY (31) — Olivia Holt 6, Ashton Adamson 4, Chinma Njoku 10, Emma Fackrell 2, Abby Christensen 3, Lexi Bull 6.
BURLEY (36) — Natalie Rice 4, Sydney Pilling 10, Hallie Cook 7, Ashley Shirley 4, Jemilynn Mahoney 11.