INDEPENDENCE — It was a thrilling finish fit for a rivalry game.
After trailing by eight early in the fourth quarter, Central rallied against Dallas. The teams tied at 40 with time running down in the fourth quarter. Now, the Panthers had a chance to take the lead with time winding down.
“We wanted to do our usual out-of-bounds play, which usually goes to Annika (Riddell) in the post because of her height,” Central coach Julie McDonald said. “We saw that a smaller girl was guarding Meagan (Mendazona), so we went to her. Her determination and athleticism can get her to the hole, and if she didn’t make (the shot), Annika would be on the opposite side to get the rebound. I felt we had the advantage both ways.”
Mendazona took the in-bounds pass and drove right to the hoop. Her shot clanked off the rim, but Riddell was in position to grab the rebound and go up for another shot.
“I thought, you better make this,” Riddell said.
Riddell made the put back — and got fouled.
Her foul shot, however, was less successful, missing the rim entirely.
“I was freaking out and was really nervous,” Riddell said.
The missed free throw gave Dallas a chance to inbound the ball. The Dragons were out of timeouts. And Central could foul without sending a Dallas player to the free-throw line, helping to run time off the clock. There was only one rule — don’t foul if Dallas was shooting.
The Dragons got the ball in and sprinted up the court. The Panthers fouled as planned — but not without a bit of controversy. The refs huddled together to discuss how much time was left on the clock and whether Dallas’ player was in the shooting motion when fouled.
“I didn’t really see what happened, so I was really nervous,” Riddell said.
The refs decided the shooting motion had not begun, and the Dragons weren’t able to send the game into overtime.
“It feels amazing,” Mariah Hyre said. “We kept pushing each other. We knew we had to beat Dallas.”
The victory was a big moment. Central entered its game against Dallas with a 4-7 record overall.
Of the Panthers’ seven losses, four have come by three points or less – including a 45-44 loss to Lebanon on Jan. 17. All but one of the team’s losses have come by single digits.
Central kept showing improvements, but they weren’t resulting in wins.
“We’re so young,” McDonald said. “You look at these other teams and they have five, six, seven seniors, and we have one. We keep telling them to keep working and looking at the big picture here.”
There was little doubt the team could be competitive, but players experienced how difficult it can be to close out a game.
On Friday, the lessons players learned through all the close calls paid off.
“We’ve been in that situation so many times,” McDonald said. “We worked on being confident and showing confidence. We created some fouls and didn’t let up on defense.”
Central still has work to do. The Panthers, which played Corvallis Tuesday after press time, entered the week tied for fifth place in the conference with Lebanon and South Albany with a 2-3 mark in Mid-Willamette Conference play.
Each game becomes more important to qualify for the postseason, McDonald said. Players hope the win over Dallas helped them turn an important corner in their development.
“We had faith in each other and learned to trust ourselves and our coaches,” Hyre said. “We saw that we can win these tough games.”
The Panthers know they can’t savor the victory for too long. They must continue to learn and build to keep pace in a difficult league, McDonald said. But all that could wait at least for a night. On Friday, Central enjoyed the thrill of victory against a big rival.
“It’s always a great time when we play (Dallas),” McDonald said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the girls.”