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Early deficit against Kentwood hampers Union girls in 4A bi-district winner-to-state loss

Titans finish the season with 19-6 record

By Will Denner, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 17, 2024, 3:24pm
6 Photos
Brooklynn Haywood (10) of Union works against Kentwood's Isabella Cho in a 4A girls basketball bi-district playoff game at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.
Brooklynn Haywood (10) of Union works against Kentwood's Isabella Cho in a 4A girls basketball bi-district playoff game at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. (Tim Martinez/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

TACOMA — The Union girls basketball team dealt with some unusual experiences over the offseason, namely, a number of players coming and going within the program.

That’s why Titans coach Gary Mills says he’s only half joking at the idea of writing a book chronicling the team’s season.

What made the story special, though, is how the Titans came together despite those circumstances and made a playoff push in the Class 4A bi-district tournament.

“There were a lot of just very unique circumstances that happened within our program over the last six months with people leaving,” Mills said. “We had five people coming back that chose not to play for us this year, and that put us in a little bit of, what are we going to do? We rallied, and still won 19 games. I think that’s a testament to the senior leadership we had, and Ava Smith especially.”

Mills would also have plenty of material to write a chapter on the Titans’ pressure-packed close games in the last three days, including Saturday’s 58-54 loss to Kentwood in a winner-to-state, loser-out game at Mount Tahoma High School.

The Titans (19-6) had three looks at a game-tying 3-pointer inside the final minute, but all three missed. After the Conquerors secured a rebound, they burned nearly 15 seconds off the clock as the Titans attempted to foul. With seven seconds left, Tyanna Sims made 1-of-2 free throws to give Kentwood a two-possession lead and ice the game. Kentwood shot 19-of-24 from the free-throw line while Union went 5-of-8.

Those were the final moments of Union’s season, but the team also lamented the early deficit it dug against Kentwood in the first half that left little margin for error.

The Conquerors (18-7) hit three 3-pointers to open the game from three different players — Jessica Ajayi, Nikola Boris and Isabella Cho — and routinely gave themselves extra scoring opportunities by winning loose balls. Union trailed by 12 points at halftime after Brooklynn Haywood hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the second quarter.

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“I don’t think you can ever win the game in the first half, but sometimes you can lose the game in the first half,” Mills said. “One of the timeouts we were saying, ‘we’ve got to start pushing back or we’re going to find that it’s too much.’ Ultimately, Kentwood is a team that plays with a lot of chemistry, a lot of heart, a lot of passion and we let too many good things happen for them early. Then we were in for a battle after that.”

The Titans made their move in the final three minutes of the third with a 10-0 run that started and ended with 3-pointers from Ava Smith, which cut Kentwood’s lead to 43-41 entering the fourth.

“That’s our style of basketball, is playing free and shooting when you’re open,” Mills said.

To the Conquerors’ credit, however, they quickly brushed it off and scored eight of the first 10 points in the fourth to reclaim a 10-point lead.

Union’s final push inside of three minutes included 3’s from Haywood and Rowyn Riley, but it was unable to tie or take the lead.

Haywood, a sophomore, led Union with 23 points. Toward the end of the regular season, Mills said the sophomore caught fire and continued at a torrid pace in the postseason. Over three prior bi-district games before Saturday, she scored a combined 104 points, including 43 points against Kentridge and 42 points in a tight loss to Emerald Ridge on Thursday.

“She’s a special talent and she’s the focus of every team we play, and she’s still gotten loose for some 40-point games,” Mills said.

“Just love her killer instinct and her precociousness. Anxious to see what she does in the next two (seasons).”

The Titans’ seniors Zoey Robards (13 points), Smith (nine points) and Riley (seven points) also had a sizable impact on this year’s team, Mills said.

“Just a group that got along so well,” the coach said. “There were no cliques on this team. Everybody just loved each other and wanted to do what needed to be done. That’s what I’ll remember about them.”


UNION — Carli Christensen 0, Myla Larry 2, Brooklynn Haywood 23, Rowyn Riley 7, Taylor McCullough 0, Addison Eisfeldt 0, Zoey Robards 13, Ava Smith 9. Totals 20 (9) 5-8 54.

KENTWOOD — Alena Ton 0, Tyanna Sims 12, Isabella Cho 6, Jessica Ajayi 23, Nikola Boris 11, Aubrey Chapple 6, Isabelle Stogsdill 0. Totals 16 (7) 19-24 58.

Union 10 11 20 13—54

Kentwood 18 15 10 15—58