BAKER CITY — With three minutes left, the scoreboard inside Baker High School’s gymnasium read Nixyaawii 54, Country Christian 46. After a back-and-forth game, the Nixyaawii Golden Eagles had momentum on their side and were creeping closer and closer to a second straight unbeaten season and state championship.
However, with 2:50 left on the clock, everything changed.
Nixyaawii senior do-it-all guard Milan Schimmel picked up her fifth foul while going for a steal and was forced to sit the remainder of the game. That play alone appeared to suck the momentum from the Golden Eagles and into the Cougars’ favor, and they pounced.
Country Christian outscored the Golden Eagles 10-0 in the final two minutes and 34 seconds to stun the Golden Eagles 56-54 to win the Class 1A state championship on Saturday afternoon. It was the Cougars’ second championship in three years, previously winning in 2016. And it marked the first loss for the 2017 champion Golden Eagles in two years, having won 56 consecutive games coming into Saturday’s matchup.
“I don’t know if anything went wrong, really, they (Country Christian) just played really well,” Nixyaawii coach Jeremy Maddern said afterward. “It was a high-level game and it was back-and-forth. But obviously Milan going out in the fourth hurt, because we had a lead there and we have those two guards (with Mary Stewart) that we’re able to kill a lot of clock and muscle into possessions ... So I don’t want to say we did bad things, they did good things. It was just a high-quality game that they (Country Christian) played better.”
After Schimmel was sent to the Golden Eagle (28-1) bench, the Cougars defense was keying on Nixyaawii’s Mary Stewart and trapping the ball high in the half court. It flustered Stewart, causing three turnovers in that led to points for the Cougars.
The Cougars’ Molly Lewandowski then swished an open jumper from the right elbow with one minute left, tying the game at 54-54. And then with 15 seconds left, Stewart drove and let go of a floater from five feet out that clanked off the front of the rim and fell into the waiting hands of a Cougar rebounder.
After a Country Christian (26-4) timeout, the Cougars broke through Nixyawaii’s full-court press with ease and the ball bounced into the hands of Lewandowski, who layed it in for the go-ahead basket. That sent the Cougar fans into pandemonium and the Golden Eagle fans into shock.
Nixyaawii had one last shot to tie or win the game, but Stewart’s three-quarters court desperation shot landed way left of the rim to seal the championship for the Cougars.
“I just think Country Christian played one of the best games they’re going to play,” Nixyaawii senior Kaitlynn Melton said. “And we didn’t play our best game. We played our ‘C’ game or ‘D’ game.”
Country Christian shot 43 percent from the floor (22-of-51) and used its height inside to outrebound Nixyaawii 42-28. Lewandowski had a team-best 26 points to go with 10 rebounds and Meghan McGrath had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Country Christian coach Russ Halverson agreed that it was perhaps the best game his team had played, singling out McGrath’s performance as an explanation. Halverson believed McGrath had made two or three 3-pointers all season, and she was a perfect 3 for 3 in the game.
“I’m honestly still in shock,” Halverson said afterward. “I run the coaches poll and there was not one vote all year that didn’t have Nixyaawii No. 1. It felt like we were going against an unbeatable foe a little bit ... Nixyaawii is probably one of the best 1A teams I’ve ever seen and our girls played one of their best games they’ve ever played and what a time to do it.”
Nixyaawii also deployed a different defensive philosophy than fans were used to seeing. Gone was the full-court pressure that would rack up turnovers and in its place was a mostly half-court zone defense that the Cougars did not have many issues working around in the game. Maddern explained that he made the switch to the zone to try and lessen the size advantage the Cougars had inside with the likes of Lewandowski.
“I’ll probably be second-guessing myself a little bit,” he said. “We did extend our pressure a little bit here and there, but they’re (the Cougars) a fundamentally good team, so we didn’t feel like we’d get many turnovers off of it. But who knows, a different gameplay might’ve made a different result.”
For the Golden Eagles, Stewart had a game-high 28 points with five steals, four rebounds and one assist and Schimmel had 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists. However, both combined for those points on just 14-of-37 shooting. The remaining six players to see the floor for the Golden Eagles combined for 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting.
Even though the Golden Eagles head home with disappointment of not achieving a goal that they set last February, Maddern still wants his team to hold their heads high and realize the magnitude of their success over the past two seasons.
“We went on one of the most historic runs there, with 56 in a row,” he said. “I told the girls in the locker room, there are bigger things in life than a basketball game. I’m more upset that we lose our seniors and won’t be able to see them anymore. At the end of the day, yeah it’s heartbreaking because you put a lot of energy and effort into it, but it is just a game and these kids are going to do better things for their life.”
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.