BURLINGTON - It was in a senior night win over Mount Baker a week and a half ago that Ed Wissing began noticing a change in his Bellingham girls' basketball team.
"Really our senior night was a springboard of something special in terms of energy and effort," Wissing said. "We've seen little bursts throughout the season, but it does seem like our system things are starting to click."
The win over the Mountaineers in the regular-season finale foreshadowed a first-round Valentine's Day surprise at Cascade Conference top seed Cedarcrest.
That momentum nearly carried the Red Raiders all the way to their first state tournament appearance since 2005 on Monday, Feb. 17.
But Katie Rodriguez and Olivia Capron had other ideas, as they helped Burlington-Edison pull away late to hand Bellingham a 60-51 district semifinal loss. Rodriguez came off the bench to score 14 of her game-high 20 points in the second half, and Capron recorded a double-double with 14 points, 12 rebounds and a game-high four assists to lead the Tigers (14-8) to their 10th-straight trip to the state tournament.
Bellingham (12-10) will have a second chance to join the Tigers in the regional round at state, when the Red Raiders face Anacortes at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, in a winner-to-state game at Mount Vernon.
Having any shot to get to state had to seem pretty remote for Bellingham on Jan. 31, following a 75-49 regular-season loss to Burlington. But in Monday's rematch, the Red Raiders showed they are worthy.
"We felt in the first game we let them get hot from the outside, and when they weren't hitting early, they were getting so many second-chance opportunities, that that's how they beat us," Wissing said. "They were shooting until they made one. Coming in tonight, our emphasis was to close out really hard on those shooters and to work very hard on the defensive glass to make sure we limited their shots. We saw that. At times they're going to get some, but for the most part we did a good job."
Not only did the Red Raiders do a good job limiting Burlington's second-chance opportunities, they took the Tigers' top weapons out of the game. Edie Breckenridge and Emily Agen, who combined for 37 points in the first meeting, notched only eight and five points, respectively, as both got into foul trouble on Monday. Tyra Lopez, who had 15 on Jan. 31, had just three through the first three quarters, before finishing with 11.
But what Bellingham took away, the Tigers were able to make up for with big nights from Rodriguez and Capron.
"(Rodriguez), she had a great game, didn't she?" Wissing said. "When you play a team that is as skilled as they are, you really have to pick your poison. In the end, I thought we did a pretty good job of limiting some of their stars, but their role players stepped up and had big games for them."
And never were they bigger than in the fourth quarter.
The game was back and fourth through most of the first three periods. Rodriguez's third of four 3-pointers in the game gave the Tigers a 38-37 lead heading to the fourth.
Bellingham's Michaela Knutson answered with a put-back to make it 39-38 50 seconds into the fourth, but little did the Red Raiders know that would be their final lead of the game.
Rodriguez drained another 3 on Burlington's next possession to make it 41-39, before Lopez hit another following a Bellingham turnover and Capron scored a lay-up after Rodriguez picked up her third steal of the night to make it 46-39 with 5:25 to play.
The Red Raiders managed to get back within four points midway through the fourth, but turnovers on three successive Bellingham possessions allowed the Tigers to build their biggest lead of the game to that point, 57-49 with just 1:33 to play.
Knutson led the way for the Red Raiders with 10 points, though Joelle Zamora had a big game with nine points and six rebounds.
"The big thing she did wasn't just the offense, but she was really good rebounding and played strong defense in the post," Wissing said. "She made some tough plays when we really needed."
Alicia Romero also played a big role with eight points and a team-high nine rebounds, while Jenn Paul chipped in four points and two assists off the bench.
"I thought coming off the bench, Jenn Paul did a really nice job," Wissing said. "She got her hand in the passing lane at times. She was solid on defense and had some good shot selection."
It's that kind of effort that should make Bellingham, which entered as the Northwest Conference's No. 4 seed, a difficult out on Wednesday or down the line, should the Red Raiders advance.
"There are no gimmes in the playoffs, are there?" Wissing said. "Likewise, we know that whoever we face is going to be a worthy opponent and is likely going to give us a good game. We have to muster the same kind of energy and effort we've seen in our last couple of games. I do think we're playing some of our best basketball right now."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
BURLINGTON EDISON 60, BELLINGHAM 51
Bellingham 14 10 13 14 - 51
Burlington-Edison 13 13 12 22 - 60
Bellingham: Carleen Syth 2, Jenn Paul 4, Ashley Spink 7, Abigail McLellan 5, Sarabeth Pemble 0, Alicia Romero 8, Chantelle Chen 0, Michaela Knutson 10, Joelle Zamora 9, Alyssa Porter 6. Team totals: 21-54 4-8 51.
Burlington-Edison: Tyra Lopez 11, Edie Breckenridge 8, Ali Heyntsen 0, Katie Rodriguez 20, Olivia Capron 14, Delaney Watson 0, Rylee Gunderson 2, Emily Agen 5. Team totals: 22-51 9-15 60.
3-ptg: Bellingham 5 (Knutson 2, Zamora 2), Burlington-Edison 7 (Rodriguez 4). Rebounds: Bellingham 33 (Romero 9), Burlington-Edison 32 (Capron 12). Assists: Bellingham 8 (Spink 3), Burlington-Edison 10 (Capron 4). Fouls: Bellingham 14, Burlington-Edison 12. Turnovers: Bellingham 15, Burlington-Edison 12.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.