NAMPA — One of the main preaching points of Carey High School girls basketball head coach Merrilee Sears is that players have to step up and make their shots when their number is called.
In Saturday’s 1A Division II state championship game against Salmon River, that was a tall order. The Savages had rolled through the state tournament and looked to be an unstoppable force on offense. The Panthers had to go shot-for-shot to keep their title hopes alive.
They did more than that, outdoing Salmon River in just about every facet of the game.
Behind 20 points from sophomore Kylie Wood, as well as a resolute defensive effort down the stretch, the Panthers captured the first state championship in program history, defeating the Savages, 56-48.
“This is something they worked for and they deserve,” Sears said. “There hasn’t been a team I’ve ever had that have played this well together.”
The Savages had beaten Dietrich by 16 points and Sho-Ban by 21 before squaring up with Carey (21-1) and, right from the jump, they showed why.
By the halfway point of the first quarter, Salmon River led Carey, 10-4. That quick flex of the muscles by the Savages looked like it could result in a difficult day for Carey, but it instead proved the opposite.
Carey senior Athana Versis hit a 3-pointer, then Wood scored four straight points before senior Kodi Green put Carey up, 13-12, by the end of the first quarter. Salmon River senior Chevelle Shepherd made two free throws to give the Savages the lead back, but that was the last time they’d be in front.
Junior Kourtney Black knocked down a 3-pointer, then Green put in back-to-back baskets and Carey led, 20-15. Sears pointed out Green in particular as a player who stepped up during that stretch, taking control in the post with a size advantage down low.
“Everybody did their job,” Sears said. “I thought Kodi did amazing in the first half.”
However, a triple just before the break from Shepherd, who had 18 first-half points, leveled things at 27-27 entering halftime. Out of the break, though, Carey began to find space between itself and Salmon River.
A 10-0 run, sparked by a basket by senior Lindsey Morey, included two more 3-pointers from Black, as well as a bucket from junior Felicity Black and put the Panthers ahead, 39-29. However, Salmon River wouldn’t go quietly, pulling to within four points by the end of the quarter.
With just under three minutes left in the game, the Panthers clung to a two-point lead, but, all the way through, there was an assured nature about the way they played.
“There was not really any doubt in my mind,” Versis said. “I have confidence in my team. We were up the whole time, so they couldn’t stall. I knew if we played good defense like we can, we could pull it off.”
Right out of a Carey timeout with a 48-46 lead, Versis drained a triple, which Sears said proved a defining point in the game. Then, it was just up to the defense.
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Wood said that aspect of the Panthers’ game wasn’t at its best all game, but when it finally picked up, it really did the job.
“Coach always tells us it’ll be a battle no matter what,” Wood said. “But, she’s always gonna choose us because we’ll keep fighting until the end.”
The Panthers kept Shepherd to just four points in the final quarter, while Wood scored six in the frame to help Carey pull away for the championship victory, doing so while laboring through knee issues.
She guarded Shepherd the whole way through and shut her down when it really mattered at the end, and poured in a team-high of 20 points in a standout performance.
“There’s no words for Kylie,” Sears said. “I’ve had to kick her out of the gym and say, ‘no, you need your rest.’ She just loves it...She asked to guard the best player.”
Green added 10 points, Kourtney Black had nine and Versis added eight to aid Wood in Carey’s offensive efforts, a team effort, Sears said.
Sears added that there’s great pride in everybody on the squad, just because she feels each player was able to step forward and make a contribution when needed.
Each one of those contributions helped pave the way to that first ever championship triumph for the Panthers.
“It’s so crazy to think that we’re literally making history,” Versis said. “Looking back, we can tell our children about this someday. It’s just such a great accomplishment.”