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Crater, Ashland begin title quest today

It was ages ago in the landscape of a basketball season, but Ashland girls basketball coach Steve Farley remembers all too well what it was like when his team last faced Willamette.

In the season opener for both teams, the defending Class 5A champion Wolverines dismantled the Grizzlies on their home court, 51-26.

It was Farley's first game as head coach of the Grizzlies, and he's hoping that tonight's rematch in the opening round of the state tournament won't bring about the beginning of the end for what has turned into a remarkable run for his team.

"We're not going there to just try and keep up with them," said Farley. "Our goal is to go and win a state title. We think we have a great shot at it, but at the same time we have one heckuva bracket to get through to get there."

Second-ranked Ashland (24-2) carries a 24-game winning streak into the Chiles Center in Portland, while third-ranked Willamette (25-1) is on an 18-game winning streak of its own.

The Wolverines' lone loss this season came in a 42-27 matchup with Class 6A Sheldon, one of three Southwest Conference teams to advance to the eight-team 6A state tournament beginning Thursday.

Ashland followed the loss to Willamette by coming up short against 6A Canby, then regrouped to go undefeated the rest of the way — highlighted by a win over SWC champ North Medford and two wins over Grants Pass.

"I think we were scared the first time we played (Willamette)," said Farley. "We were very nervous and that's a tough opening matchup. We missed some easy shots early on and they had a huge run to start the game that we could never answer."

But that was then.

Led by all-conference first-teamers Allison Gida, Brenna Heater and Kelsey McKinnis, the Grizzlies are a different bunch these days.

"I think the girls have gotten to be more confident now and have that swagger knowing that we are a good team and we can go and play with teams like Willamette," added Farley, whose team last advanced to the state tourney two years ago.

The Wolverines are led by 6-foot junior post A.J. Smith, who averages 17 points per game, and speedy junior point guard Alyxe Bruns, who chips in around 12 points per game. Smith is very athletic and Bruns has great quickness and shooting touch.

Willamette, which cruised to the 5A title last year with a 15-point average margin of victory, typically likes to spread the court to take full advantage of such traits.

"There's a reason why they're one of the best teams every year," said Farley. "They are extremely well-coached, very disciplined and execute what they want to do very well. They're the defending state champions and, in my opinion, until somebody knocks them off they're still the team to beat."

CRATER VS. WILSONVILLE — Another example of size against quickness will be found in the opening game of the 5A tournament, with the bigger Crater Comets seeking to deny the aggressive tendencies of fifth-ranked Wilsonville (22-3).

"They don't have the size we have with their post players," said Crater coach J.T. Thomas, "but they have really good skill players and are very quick and aggressive."

The Northwest Oregon Conference champions are led by conference player of the year Melinda Ingalls, who averages 17 points, and 5-11 post Megan Arnoldy, who chimes in with 14 points per game. The Wildcats have won seven straight entering today's game.

Crater (13-9) expects to counter with senior posts Alana Harding (6-2) and Aundrea Albright (6-3) and a stingy defense bent on slowing down at least one of Wilsonville's top talents.

"We just went through that with Marshall (during a 54-49 win in the second round of the state playoffs)," said Thomas, "so it's nothing new for us."

Harding and Albright each average about 10 points and seven rebounds per game for the Comets, while senior guards Carly Deschamps and Bonnie Heard each stepped up with double-digit scoring against Marshall to send Crater back to the state tourney for the first time since 2002.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com