Red-hot Grizzlies ready for rematch

Back in November, when football was still the talk of the town, the Willamette girls basketball team came to Ashland and reminded everyone on hand why the Lady Wolverines were the defending state champions.

Now, three months after that 51-26 thrashing, No. 2 Ashland (24-2) and No. — Willamette (25-1) will meet again, this time with the stakes just a little higher, and the Grizzlies a whole lot more confident thanks to a 24-game winning streak.

The Class 5A state quarterfinal game tips off at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Chiles Center in Portland, where the final eight teams will duke it out for a state championship over the next four days. In today's other quarterfinal games, No. — Jefferson will take on Bend, Crater faces Wilsonville and Corvallis plays Hermiston.

The last time Ashland and Willamette saw each other the Grizzlies were still adjusting to first-year head coach Steve Farley and looked out of sync from the opening tip. It also didn't help that two of Ashland's top three scorers saw only limited action &

Brenna Heater battled foul trouble throughout and Kelsey McKinnis was poked in the eye in the first quarter and didn't return.

When the beating was finally over &

Willamette built a 33-15 halftime lead and held the Grizzlies to just nine field goals &

Farley put it into perspective. Now, his words seem almost prophetic: "They are still learning all new stuff," he said of his team. "I told them that this doesn't mean a whole lot in terms of what our goals are for the season. We're trying to put ourselves in position to win a league title and win a state title. That doesn't come from winning your first game."

The Grizzlies responded to that challenge by accomplish the first of those two goals, and now are in position to make a run at the second. Advancing to the state semifinals for the second time in three years won't be easy, however. The Lady Wolverines employ a stifling man-to-man defense and run a disciplined offense that burned Ashland last time. Still, the Grizzlies insist they're not the same team that was ambushed on its home court back in November.

"We've all improved physically and we've all grown into playing together," McKinnis said after Monday's practice at Mountain Avenue Gym. "Our team has progressed so much that I think we're ready this time."

Farley agreed.

"We've matured a lot over the year and we've learned our roles on the team," he said, "so I think we have a great shot if we do things the right way and execute."

The "right way" against Willamette probably means doing a better job guarding junior guard Alyxe Bruns and junior post Ashley Smith, who combined to outscore the Grizzlies 31-26 the first time around. That inside-outside combination almost always leads the way offensively for the Lady Wolverines, whose only loss of the season came to Sheldon, a 6A team, back on Dec. 21.

"We're going to have to stay up on all their wings and just talk a lot," Ashland guard Heidi Siebenlist said.

If the Grizzlies do manage to get past Willamette, their reward will probably be a semifinal date with undefeated Jefferson (24-0). The Democrats are favored to win it all for a reason: they've won most of their games by 25 points or more, routinely score in the 70s and 80s and are hungry after taking a stunning loss to Willamette in last year's state championship game.

The venue will be a familiar place for a few of the Grizzlies, especially Heater, who had a coming out party of sorts during Ashland's surprising run to the state semis two years ago. The 6A tournament will also be played at the Chiles Center (starting Thursday), which makes the University of Portland gym the center of the Oregon girls basketball universe this week.

That's fine by Heater, who said playing in front of a big crowd could be just what Ashland needs.

"I think it pumps us up," she said. "We kind of want to show people what we can do, show them what we're made of.

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