EVERSON - The girls' basketball game between Nooksack Valley and Blaine was a prize fight in every sense of the term.
The Pioneers entered sporting an undefeated 8-0 record while the Borderites, despite their 4-4 record, had faced some of the stiffest competition in the state before the matchup Friday, Jan. 3, at Nooksack Valley High School.
And like any good prize fight, the two teams traded blow after blow in the fourth quarter, with Blaine pulling out a late 51-48 win.
"We knew we just had to rely on our team," said senior post Lexi McElwain, who posted game-highs in both points (17) and rebounds (9). "We had to play united."
Nooksack Valley entered the fourth quarter holding a 35-29 lead, but it evaporated quickly after Mandy Hayes hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the Borderites' first two possessions. Hayes finished the game with 15 points - eight of which came in the final quarter.
"That's what we want from her. She is an excellent shooter, and when she's on, she doesn't miss," Blaine coach Ryan Pike said. "Those two propelled us a bit - got us back even."
The Pioneers' Taryn Tenkley answered right back with a corner 3-pointer of her own off a dribble-drive by Julie Campos giving them a slight 38-35 advantage with 6:12 remaining in the fourth.
The subsequent possessions for Blaine were when McElwain started to do her work down low, pulling down loose boards and getting to the foul line. She hit four shots from the stripe over a two-possession swing, but a desperation 3-pointer by Nooksack's Emilia Gimmaka with two seconds left on the shot clock still kept the Pioneers at a distance, 41-37.
"They hit some shots," Pike said.
After Blaine managed to bring the game to 41-41 after baseline drive by Perry, the Pioneers got a free throw and 3-pointer from Lindsay Hayes - four of her 13 points while adding a team-high seven rebounds - but an elbow jumper by the Borderites' Taylor V'Dovec and McElwain's lone 3-pointer in the game gave Blaine its first lead since 17-16 with 3:10 left in the second quarter.
McElwain didn't hesitate before taking the shot, but apparently Pike had some apprehension on the sideline before the senior post lofted it from the top of the key.
"I heard Coach say, 'No.' ... I've been practicing my shot," she said. "I was like, 'It's open. I'm going to take it. I just kind of went for it."
On the very next possession, McElwain missed a point-blank layup but corralled one of her nine rebounds and got a second-chance, put-back layup.
"She just has the determination. I don't know how else to put it except for pure determination," said Pike of McElwain. "If the game is on the line and there is a ball in the air, Lexi wants it, and she will do whatever she has to do to get it. Scratch; claw; fight - she doesn't care. She wants the ball and she wants to win."
Nooksack's Mariah Perry hit an elbow 3-pointer to tie the game up at 48-48, but a pair of late free throws and a key offensive rebound by McElwain secured the win.
Despite the loss, the Pioneers made their way back to the locker room knowing they had tested one of the better teams in the Northwest Conference.
"They have more experience than us," Nooksack coach Shane Wichers said. "We played hard and we have nothing to be ashamed of."
The Pioneers shot just 18 of 54 from the field versus Blaine shooting 17 of 58, but much of Nooksack's damage was done in the second and third quarters.
After falling behind 14-7 in the first, the Pioneers opened the second quarter on an 11-3 run sparked by Mariah Perry. Mariah Perry scored five of her 13 points in the quarter, but also added three assists and two offensive rebounds over the stretch.
"We had confidence in our shot," Mariah Perry said. "We slowed our pace down. We didn't know the tempo of the game very well in the beginning."
She also made several key plays at the end of the third quarter that took a 31-29 Nooksack lead to 35-29 in less than 30 seconds.
Blaine's V'Dovec finished the game with 13 points, seven rebounds, a blocked shot and two steals. Her six points in the third largely kept Nooksack from widening what was already a several-point gap.
Reach Alex Bigelow at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.
BLAINE 51, NOOKSACK VALLEY 48
Blaine 14 5 10 22 - 51
NV 7 14 14 13 - 48
Blaine: Breanna Chau 3, Olivia Olason 1, Alexis McElwain 17, Mikayla Deming 0, Kjirstin Larson 0, Rhiana Breedlove 0, Taylor V'Dovec 13, Mandy Hayes 15. Team totals: 17-58 12-17 51.
Nooksack Valley: Arlissa Oettel 0, Taryn Tenkley 5, Lindsay Hayes 13, Julie Campos 7, Mariah Perry 13, Emilia Gimmaka 3, Cheyanna Maxwell 0, Fiona Chapman 3, Brianna Turner 4. Team totals: 18-54 4-11 48.
3-ptg: Blaine 5 (M. Hayes 3), NV (L. Hayes 3). Rebounds: Blaine 29 (McElwain 9), NV 30 (Perry 7). Assists: Blaine 6 (Olason 3), NV 10 (Perry 3). Fouls: Blaine 14, NV 14. Turnovers: Blaine 14, NV 17.