YAKIMA - The Lynden Christian girls' basketball team made a commitment to improve its play following back-to-back losses against Class 1A powers Brewster and Cashmere a little more than two months ago.
The losses provided a revelation on what the Lyncs needed to work on if they wanted to contend for a state title come March.
Nineteen straight wins later, LC is heading to the state-title game, and the Lyncs accomplished the feat by redeeming themselves against a Cashmere club that handed Lynden Christian its last loss.
"We said to the girls today, 'Hey, we are at our best. We're playing our best basketball of the year right now and we can't be afraid of Cashmere," Lyncs coach Curt De Haan said.
Senior Courtney Hollander said LC, which by most was considered an underdog against the undefeated Bulldogs, had nothing to lose, and the Lyncs played fearlessly while pulling out a gritty 31-26 Class 1A State Tournament semifinal win Friday, March 7, at the Yakima Valley SunDome.
The Lyncs (24-2) will face King's for a Class 1A state title at 9 p.m. Saturday, March 8, at the Yakima SunDome. The game will be LC's first appearance in the state-title game since Lynden Christian lost to Freeman in 2011.
The Lynden Christian bench waited in angst as the final seconds ticked away before rushing the court to greet their teammates after the final buzzer sounded.
"There are no words to describe this feeling," sophomore Kara Bajema said, "as a sophomore, this is an opportunity of a lifetime."
And LC's leading scorer was largely responsible, especially down the stretch, for getting LC to the pinnacle game of 1A girls' basketball
Trailing 24-20 with 5:36 left in the game, Bajema began a string of three straight 3-pointers that captured the momentum back from the Bulldogs.
Bajema buried a corner triple to cut the lead to 24-23 before tying the game at 26 with 2:35 to go. Finally Bajema was the recipient of a great kick-out pass and drained a third 3 to put the Lyncs in front 29-26 with 1:50 left in the game.
Hollander made a pair of free throws in the final minute to seal the win.
"Kara has been coming up clutch in almost all of our games," Hollander said, "and so I think just having her there is awesome. We rely on her. I knew she was going to make it even before I passed the ball to her."
Bajema finished with a game-high 14 points and shot 4 of 7 from deep. Hollander, who was invaluable as LC's primary ball-handler with starting guard Makayla Lancaster out with an injury, added nine points and a game-high seven rebounds. Together, the cousins recorded 23 of LC's 31 points.
For both teams, points came at a premium in a matchup featuring 61 defensive stops.
LC employed a triangle-and-two defense, while Cashmere ran a half-court trap with heavy ball pressure. Both defenses effectively neutralized the opposing offense.
But Lynden Christian's proved to be a bit more inoperable against.
Cashmere shot 19.6 percent from the field (9 of 46), and its 26 points was 31.3 points below its season average.
"Our triangle was very effective throughout the game," De Haan said. "Give them credit; they are a tough team to crack. They trap you and put a lot of pressure on you all over."
Lynden Christian took early command and led until late in the third quarter. LC owned an 8-6 advantage at half and outscored Cashmere 4-2 in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs grabbed their biggest lead of the game when guard Mikayla Sites hit a 3 with 5:36 left to put Cashmere in front 24-20, but Bajema and the Lyncs answered right back.
"With (Lancaster) out, we all knew we had to step up," Hollander said. "With adversity, you have to step to the challenge, and I think that's what we did today. Defense was what we knew was going to win the game. Both of us are defensive-minded teams. Our offense was going to be sparked by our defense, and that's just what happened."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
Class 1A State Tournament final
9 p.m. Saturday, March 8, at SunDome
Lynden Christian vs. Blaine/King's
King's beat Blaine 50-37 during the Class 1A State Tournament semifinal on Friday, March 9, at the Yakima SunDome. The Knights led nearly the entire game, but Blaine cut the lead to single digits late in the second quarter before King's pulled away in the fourth. Lynden Christian beat King's 46-36 two weeks ago during the District 1 Tournament championship.
BEYOND THE BOX
Lynden Christian sophomore Kara Bajema hit three straight 3s to score Lynden's points from 20 to 29. She finished 4 of 7 from deep, hitting all of the Lyncs' triples.
"We knew we were underdogs, and we had nothing to lose. We had to give everything. We knew we'd have to be scrappy. The whole tournament we've been talking about how we need to have grit, and that's what won it down the stretch." Courtney Hollander
LYNDEN CHRISTIAN 31, CASHMERE 26
Cashmere 6 2 11 7 - 26
Lynden Christian 8 4 6 13 - 31
FG FT Reb
CASHMERE M-A M-A O-T A PF PTS
Mikayla Sites 2-10 0-0 2-3 0 0 5
Tianna Helm 0-0 1-2 2-3 0 4 1
Breanne Knishka 4-23 0-0 2-4 1 1 9
Dani Morseman 0-2 0-0 0-0 0 1 0
Lauren Johnson 2-3 0-0 0-1 3 5 5
Sydnee Mongeon 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Karly Thies 0-0 2-4 3-6 0 2 2
Abbie Johnson 1-6 2-2 2-3 0 1 4
Corine Turner 0-2 0-0 1-1 0 0 0
Totals 9-46 5-8 14-28 4 14 26
Percentages: FG .196, FT .62.5. 3-Point FG: 3-23, .130 (Sites 1-7, Knishka 1-14, Morseman 0-1, L. Johnson 1-1). Blocked Shots: 4 (Knishka 3, L. Johnson 1). Steals: 5 (Sites 1, Helm 1, L. Johnson 1, A. Johnson 2). Turnovers: 7 (Knishka 3, Thies 2, A. Johnson 2).
FG FT Reb
LYNDEN CHRISTIAN M-A M-A O-T A PF PTS
Haley Hollander 0-1 0-0 1-5 0 1 0
Kara Bajema 5-10 0-1 0-4 0 3 14
Courtney Hollander 3-9 3-4 3-7 1 0 9
Sally Vlas 1/5 0-3 0-3 1 2 2
Kassady Aldrich 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Karley DeJager 1-3 0-0 2-2 0 0 2
Sara Dougan 1-4 0-0 2-4 0 3 2
Morgan VanKooten 1-1 0-0 0-0 0 1 2
Totals 12-33 3-8 11-35 2 10 31
Percentages: FG .364, FT .375. 3-Point FG: 4-9, .444 (Hollander 0-1, Bajema 4-7, Hollander 0-1). Blocked Shots: 2 (Hollander 1, Dougan 1). Steals: 4 (Bajema 1, Vlas 2, Dougan 1). Turnovers: 16 (Bajema 1, Hollander 4, Vlas 4, Aldrich 2, DeJager 2, Team 3).