PENDLETON — Two seasons ago, the Heppner girls basketball team sat in the basement of the Columbia Basin Conference and lost sixteen straight games to end the season. It was rock bottom for the program and first-year coach Robert Wilson, however the Mustangs did not stay there for long.
On Saturday afternoon at the Pendleton Convention Center, the Heppner Mustangs won their fifteenth game of the season and captured the Columbia Basin Conference district championship with a 48-35 victory over Weston-McEwen.
“It’s amazing,” Heppner’s Jacee Currin said. “We really came together as a team this weekend and I’m really proud of every single girl on our team.”
Currin, a junior, has been arguably Heppner’s best offensive player as a do-it-all guard for all three years as a Mustang. However, Heppner’s offense pretty much started and stopped with her in previous seasons, which was a small part of the combined 9-30 record in that span. That all changed this season, as the Mustangs (15-6 overall) roster saw a lot of improvement from the returners and got a boost from new faces such as freshman Sydney Wilson, and the team took off.
“I saw this coming up in previous years leading up,” Heppner coach Robert Wilson said of the improvement. “We really looked at the youth and tried to develop them. We knew we were getting a group that could be special, maybe not this quick, but I definitely saw the potential. Then as the season went on, we started doing things better and better and really looking to work as a team.”
Currin led the Mustangs with 15 points and nine rebounds and Sydney Wilson added 12 points and a team-best 16 rebounds — nine of which were on the offensive glass. But where the Mustangs earned the victory was with their defense.
In Heppner’s two previous games with Weston-McEwen, the TigerScots (16-9) won both by a combined 31 points. Except on Saturday, Heppner’s defense held the TigerScots to a season-low point total, just 25 percent shooting (13 for 52), forced 17 turnovers, and gave up only 14 points in the second half.
“We basically looked at the previous games and saw that we had quarters where we could play with them, but it was usually one quarter where it slipped away,” Wilson said. “We talked about being consistent and playing four quarters the way we know we can and playing all together, and if we did that we’d end up on the right side of the score.”
Heppner led 28-21 at halftime and got the lead to double digits by the end of the third quarter 48-35. The TigerScots made a big push late in the fourth and got within six points at 39-33, but that was as close as Heppner’s defense would let the TigerScots get. Chelsea Quaempts led the TigerScots with a game-high 17 points with six rebounds and two assists, and Katie Vescio had 12 points. Alyssa Finifrock led the team with 10 rebounds.
The defensive effort was crucial for the Mustangs because the offense wasn’t exactly efficient. The Mustangs shot 32.7 percent (18 for 55) from the field and had a sub-par showing at the free throw line making just 12-of-30 attempts. Heppner also played a five minute stretch in the fourth quarter without scoring a point.
It was a perfect game to show how far the Mustangs have come, finding ways to pull out a win with defense and hard work over the league’s regular-season champion on a day where not everything went the offense’s way.
“I felt like every single girl put their heart out on the floor,” Currin said. “We knew was Weston-McEwen was, they’re a good, tough team, and we knew we’d have to come out and play harder than we had before. And I definitely think every single girl did that today.”
Irma Retano, Culver, jr.; Chelsea Quaempts, Weston-McEwen, sr.; Kayla Deist, Sydney Wilson, Heppner, fr.; Katie Vescio, Weston-McEwen, jr.; Jacee Currin, Heppner, jr.; Kendra Hart, Stanfield, soph.
Mia Gamboa, Culver, jr.; Savannah Sharp, Stanfield, soph.; Elly Bautista, Culver, sr.; Rhyanne Oates, Pilot Rock, sr.; Jordyn Lambert, Weston-McEwen, jr.
Morgan Correa, Heppner, sr.; Alyssa Finifrock, Weston-McEwen, sr.; Sara Weinke, Pilot Rock, sr.; Lesli Alvarado, Culver, sr.; Sophie Grant, Heppner, sr.
Coach of the Year — Scott Fritz, Culver.
HHS 14 14 8 12 — 48
W-M 11 10 5 9 — 35
HEPPNER — J. Currin 15, S. Wilson 12, M. Correa 8, K. Gray 4, J. Mahoney 3, J. McCullough 3, M. Combe 2, S. Grant 1.
WESTON-MCEWEN — C. Quaempts 17, K. Vescio 12, A. Finifrock 4, J. Lambert 2, C. Davis, E. Scheibner, K. Graves, T. Burke, H. McIntyre.
3-pointers — HHS 0, W-M 2. Free throws — HHS 12-30, W-M 7-18. Fouls — HHS 15, W-M 24.
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.