NOOKSACK - Nooksack Valley's girls' basketball team is locked into a fourth seed for the Northwest District Tournament, but don't be surprised if the Pioneers make it to Class 1A state.
If rugged senior Cheyanna Maxwell continues her improvement, the Pioneers might well survive both district and tri-district coming out of one of the state's most demanding groups of 1A rivals.
Maxwell, a 5-foot-6 senior post who had been Nooksack's fifth-leading scorer among the starters, opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers and finished with 10 of her career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter as Nooksack beat Bellingham 54-48 on Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Maxwell had no trouble explaining her motivation as the Pioneers (11-6 overall, 5-6 Northwest Conference) turned in what coach Shane Wichers viewed as solid preparation for districts, which start Feb. 11.
"I absolutely love my teammates," said Maxwell, who shot 9 for 16 from the field, by far the most aggressive shooting she has ever done. "Their aggressive approach in practice has inspired me to improve. I think the best I had done before was 12 points."
Fittingly enough for Maxwell, a first-year fulltime starter, she was one of five players honored on Nooksack's Senior Night. Her pre-game smiles told how much hoops mean to her.
"No question about it, she played just great. That was Cheyanna's best game," said Wichers. "She had been struggling with her shot, but it's been just great to see her persevere (in practices as well as games)."
Nooksack ended an intense game with an 11-0 run after Bellingham (10-9, 4-7) earned a 48-43 lead midway through the fourth quarter following Joelle Zamora's fourth 3-pointer of the night, along with hustling 5-3 senior reserve Abby McLellan's three-point play off a drive and Alyssa Porter's jumper, all in a three-minute blitz.
"We had been struggling with our outside shots (the Pioneers shot 14 for 41 in the first three quarters), so I told the girls they had to get more aggressive, to attack in the paint," said Wichers.
Nooksack Valley did just that with its game-ending 11-0 run in the final 3:40, beginning with a muscle shot by Lindsay Hayes and a basket by sophomore post Brianna Turner off Hayes' steal.
Maxwell then scored off her team-high 10th rebound with 1:50 remaining, putting the Pioneers ahead for good at 49-48. Turner then took a pass from Maxwell to make it 51-48 and Maxwell pretty much wrapped it up by making her only two free throws with 19.6 seconds remaining. Just to be sure, Hayes connected on a free throw with 9.5 seconds left to cap a memorable comeback.
Bellingham, which is locked into a No. 4 seed at Class 2A districts, threw quite a scare into the Pioneers while claiming a 46-37 lead with an 18-8 run from the middle of the third period to the middle of the fourth quarter.
During Bellingham's run, Zamora made three consecutive 3-pointers and Porter connected on four consecutive baskets. Jenn Paul hit a pair of vital hoops in the third period, as well.
Nooksack senior guard Taryn Tenkley more than doubled her 6.5-point scoring average with 15 points while shooting 5 for 10 in one of her best games. Junior guard Mariah Perry had a game-high six assists and Tenkley had five as the Pioneers gratified Wichers with their obviously unselfish teamwork.
Nooksack limited the Red Raiders to 3-for-9 shooting in the final period, while the Pioneers hit on 8-of-17 shots in the last quarter to offset Bellingham's 8-for-13 accuracy in the third period.
Ashley Spink turned in several hustle rebounds and led the Red Raiders with seven. McLennan, a transfer from Maine, and Paul both contributed six points off the bench.
Emilia Gimmaka, a 5-foot-8 sophomore post, was the Pioneers' most effective reserve, hitting a pair of second-quarter hoops to help Nooksack to a 25-22 halftime lead.
"Bellingham played hard," said Wichers, who saw each of the nine girls he used called for one foul in the first half. "They were hard to defend."
First-year Bellingham coach Ed Wissing, who has also coached Sehome and Squalicum in the past decade, took time to point out what a meaningful season it has been for him.
"The girls have been very welcoming," said Wissing, whose team surely seems fast enough to have a shot at surprising opponents at districts. "They have been fantastic in their approach. I'm the third coach the seniors and juniors have had in three years."
Bellingham's seniors will have motivation at districts - they're looking for their first ever district win.
Bellingham winds up the league season at home Friday, Feb. 7, against Mount Baker. Nooksack finishes Thursday, Feb. 6, at Sedro-Woolley.
NOOKSACK VALLEY 54, BELLINGHAM 48
Bellingham 11 11 18 8-48
Nooksack Valley 15 10 10 19-54
Bellingham: Joelle Zamora 14, Alyssa Porter 14, Ashley Spink 3, Michaela Knutson 2, Alicia Romero 3, Jenn Paul 6, Abby McLellan 6, Carleen Syth 0, Chantelle Chen 0. Team totals: 17-50 10-12 48.
Nooksack Valley: Cheyanna Maxwell 22, Taryn Tenkley 15, Lindsay Hayes 5, Brianna Turner 4, Mariah Perry 4, Emilia Gimmaka 4, Arlissa Oettel 0, Julie Campos 0. Team totals: 22-58 4-6 54.
3ptg: Bellingham 4 (Zamora 4); Nooksack 4 (Tenkley 2, Maxwell 2). Rebounds: Bellingham: 32 (Spink 7); Nooksack 34 (Maxwell 10). Assists: Bellingham 8 (Porter 3); Nooksack 15 (Perry 6, Tenkley 5). Total fouls: Bellingham 13 (Romero fouled out); Nooksack 15.