TACOMA — Nothing was going right early for the La Center girls basketball team on Friday night.
The Wildcats’ best player was on the bench with two quick fouls and zero points as Annie Wright surged out to a 19-point lead.
“Was it 19 on one point?” La Center coach Brittney Stryker said. “I was trying not to look too hard at the scoreboard at that point in time.”
But then the Wildcats scratched their way back into the game and rode the grit and determination of senior Kylee Stephens to a 52-48 win over the Gators from Tacoma in a 1A regional elimination game at Mt. Tahoma High School.
“I was pretty gassed,” said Stephens, who had 23 of her game-high 29 points in the second half. “The last quarter we were running our play where it’s basically I got to go score. That’s just the mentality I had.”
That was a stark contrast from the first half when Stephens took a seat on the bench in the first quarter with two quick fouls as Annie Wright mounted a 26-7 lead early in the second quarter.
“Seeing the other team and the energy that they had, even during warmups, it was intimidating,” Stryker said. “And our girls were shook. You could see it. But then they realized ‘oh, what if I just take my time and make one pass a time.’ It’s like ‘OK, we can do this.’ ”
Alyse Webberly, Gianna D’Emilio and Annabelle Atwood hit some big shots to cut the deficit to 28-22 by halftime.
Then Stephens took over in the second half, scoring 13 points in the third quarter and going over the 1,000-point threshold for her career, as the Wildcats went into the fourth quarter tied 38-38.
“She played amazing,” Stryker said of Stephens. “She willed this win for us. I was just so impressed with her resilience after not starting the game in a strong way. … You could see the frustration. And then just to turn it around in the second half, she looked like a different player.”
Stephens added 10 more points in the fourth quarter as the Wildcats took a 50-44 lead.
“Being able to come out in the second half, get my 1,000th point and get the team back where we needed to be, it’s a really proud moment for myself,” Stephens said.
After Annie Wright scored a basket, D’Emilio missed the front end of a 1-on-1, allowing the Gators to get within 50-48 in the closing seconds.
But D’Emilio went back to the free throw line for a chance at redemption.
“I looked at her and I said ‘you need to make at least one. At least one,’ ” Stephens said.
D’Emilio made both to seal the win with 7.2 seconds to go.
“And she made it, and I just laughed at her because I knew we had this win,” Stephens said.
The Wildcats (16-7) advance to the 1A round-of-12 at the Yakima SunDome, where they will face the loser of Colville and Nooksack Valley at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
LA CENTER 52, ANNIE WRIGHT 48
LA CENTER (16-7) — Jesse Tomberlin 0, Gianna D’Emilio 11, Annabelle Atwood 3, Talia Wise 0, Alyse Webberley 7, Kylee Stephens 29, Malyah Cooley 2. Totals 18 (4) 12-15 52.
ANNIE WRIGHT (16-3) — Tatum Johnston 0, Tara Hutchinson 6, Rae Wartelle 0, Bella Spencer 8, Jazmyn Stone 18, Leah Kearns 5, Malia Oden 7, J’Lyn Doodigian 4, Monee’ DuBose 0. Totals 20 (3) 5-9 48.
La Center 7 15 16 14—52
Annie Wright 20 8 10 10—48