LEBANON — The climb from the floor of the Bud Page Activities Center up to where a champion can cut down the nets was a long one Tuesday night, but the Lebanon girls were up to the challenge.
The Warriors needed four extra minutes, a cold-blooded three-pointer, a critical stretch of clutch free throw shooting and more than a little cool under fire to dispose of cranky Crescent Valley. They got it all to beat the feisty Raiders 63-54 in overtime. Once again, the outcome was greater than the sum of the parts.
Then, one by one, they went up the ladder to cut down the net on the south end of the gym.
The victory was the 13th straight for the fifth-ranked Warriors and clinched the Mid-Willamette Conference championship at 14-1 with a game at North Salem to go. Silverton, which the Warriors beat twice on their way to the title, is 13-2. Curiously enough, the Foxes are ranked ahead of Lebanon at No. 3.
But it was the Warriors who went up the ladder.
“I knew we had the potential to do this,” Lebanon coach Mardy Benedict said. “We had a lot returners. The difference with this team is that it had the grit. It’s a lot about these seniors.”
It was a junior, though, who kept the Warriors (19-3) anchored and in position to win the game. Center Ellie Croco was the anchor in this storm of a game with 21 points and most of the clutch rebounds.
Lebanon didn’t have to face much adversity of the game. Instead, they had to face the McClave sisters, which is worse. The Crescent Valley pair — senior Cali and sophomore guard Ana — led the Raiders to the state 5A soccer championship in the fall. And they drive the team to wherever it’s headed on any given night.
“They (the Raiders) really know how to compete,” Benedict said. “They know what’s like to play in championships, and they’re really well coached.”
When Lebanon opened up a seven-point third quarter lead, Ana McClave brought the Raiders back to a tie with two steals, a layup and a slick assist to teammate Hua Wa’a for the tying basket.
When the Warriors rolled out on to a 40-32 lead on two Croco free throws with 5:01 left in regulation time, Cali McClave, then kid sister Ana, hit step-back three-pointers on consecutive possessions. Cali followed with a layup to close the lead to 45-43 with 1:33 remaining, then Ana beat a double-team and found Lexie Garrett wide open for the tying layup with 32.8 seconds left.
“Ain’t it always like that?” Benedict said.
From then on, it was a matter of survival. Croco hit a free throw with 13.1 seconds left — on Cali McClave’s fifth foul — then Ana McClave had a chance to win the game with 4.3 seconds left. She was fouled on a drive to the basket and hit the first free throw for the time.
But she stepped over the free throw line on the second — which she missed anyhow — and the game headed on.
Everything was still in doubt early in the overtime. Lebanon was nursing a 52-50 lead and was tossing the ball around trying to find a hole in the Raider defense.
Senior guard Maddy Romeo set up near the Warrior bench when Benedict leaned out to within earshot and predicted something.
“I told her, ‘Maddy, you’re a great shooter, and you’re going to hit a great shot,’” the coach recalled.
It was a tall order. The Warriors weren’t getting much out of their offense and spent a lot of time dumping the ball inside to the utterly reliable Croco for point production.
But this time, when the ball swung around to Romeo again, she had just enough of an opening. A coach could make the case that it was an ill advised shot, with a scant two-point lead and only two minutes left, but the ginger-headed Romeo let it go anyhow.
“I could feel it in my fingertips, I could just feel it,” said Romeo, who got seven of her 10 points in the overtime. “I knew it would go. The way things were going, other players (other than Croco) had to step it up.
The timing was wonderful. It finally took some of the heat off Croco — who was, by now, getting triple-teamed every time she got the ball.
“What was I thinking?” Croco said of Romeo’s shot. “Actually, I was thinking of the next possession. But it was such a clutch shot. Our bench was jumping up and down.”
The three-ball put the Warriors up by five, and for once the Raiders had no answer. They got a corner three-ball of their own from from sophomore Emma Vawter to get within 57-54 with 54 seconds left, but that was it.
That was because three different Warriors — Croco, Romeo and Morgan Hopkins hit eight consecutive free throws in the last minute. They merely made the game look like more decisive than it really was.
Benedict was deservedly effusive about Croco.
“She’s been getting better all year,” he said. “She continues to grow all the time. I’ve seen her mature and mature and mature during the season. It’s been special.”
Paige Wombacher had 12 points for Lebanon, while Romeo and Hopkins had 10 each.
Ana McClave led the Raiders (14-8, 10-5) with 15 points; big sister Cali had 14. Wa’a, CV’s big sophomore center, finished with 12.