Willamina — They were below the cutoff line for an at-large bid, so the only resort for OES to make the playoffs was to make it to their conference tournament championship game. That required beating De La Salle North Catholic, a program that went 2-0 against the Aardvarks in conference play and taking care of Portland Adventist Academy in the opening round. It was a simple plan when viewed on paper, but as the old saying goes, “Things are easier said than done.” Some teams might’ve delivered, others would’ve failed, but OES executed the plan and then some. They got past the two aforementioned teams, then they went further by knocking off regular season champion Riverdale, winning the conference tournament and advancing to state as the 16 seed. What happened exactly a week later will go down as one of Oregon’s most stunning, historical upsets ever, and it all happened on a rainy Saturday night in a small town about 32 miles from Salem.
The stage was set: A packed crowd had filled the gym at Willamina High School, an ambitious crowd that was ready to witness the next step in the historical season of the Willamina Bulldogs, who entered 21-0 and looked almost certain to pursue their first state title in school history. Their student section lined the entire floor for team intros, the national anthem was played, and the stage was fully set for what was anticipated to be another breeze win for the Bulldogs. Willamina entered having held their opponents to less than 30 points a game all season, a testament to the strength of their defense and team as a whole. However, there was a group of determined girls on the other bench that were determined to stun the entire 3A landscape.
On this night, the Bulldogs started out by missing a pair of layup attempts, something highly uncharacteristic of this team. Third time was the charm for Willamina, as Hallee Hughes got one to fall to draw first blood on the scoreboard. Three straight turnovers for OES prompted a trey from Bahley Scranton, but on the other end, OES converted four straight offensive boards and still came away with no points. The punishment? Another Scranton trey, and it was 8-0 Willamina less than three minutes into the game. Hollis Hale finally got the Aardvarks something positive, being on the receiving end of a press break to get the layup and make it 8-2. The Bulldogs had an answer: Their 6’3″ tank in the middle Cam Eaglestaff, who made a routine layup to make it 10-2 Willamina.
It was getting late into the opening quarter and OES was lucky it wasn’t worse: 15-4 Willamina after two turnovers out of a timeout, but Eaglestaff wasn’t hitting her typical close-range shots, even with her pogo stick rebounding at her 6’3″ frame. However, six team fouls certainly wasn’t helping the cause for OES when Head Coach Brad Dawson was assessed a technical foul, with the two free throws making it 17-4 Willamina. The quarter closed better than it started for the Aardvarks: Cayton Smith hit a couple of buckets and they were forcing turnovers from Willamina, which trimmed the deficit to 19-8 Willamina entering the second quarter. With Willamina’s inability to execute inside, it was an 11-point deficit instead of a 17+ point hole, even with nine team fouls haunting the Aardvarks for the rest of the half.
OES had a weapon: Cayton Smith, and she played a major role in getting them back against Willamina. Smith opened up the second quarter with seven straight points, trimming the game to 22-15 Willamina and forcing the Bulldogs to call a timeout to slow her down. Willamina adjusted to Smith, watering down the OES offense for just four points the rest of the half, but their own offensive struggles kept them from blowing open a lead. 3A’s #1 team had a 28-19 lead at halftime, but it was clear that something was off that night in Willamina, and it would finally catch up with the Bulldogs in the worst way possible.
Halfway through the third quarter, Willamina still couldn’t get away from OES. They led 36-28, but Smith and Ellie Johnson were keeping pace with the Bulldogs, who had reverted to a half-court defense approach and laid off their full-court attack. Free throws were hard to hit on both ends, leaving the fate up to who could play their best on the floor. With four minutes left in the third, it was looking like OES with Smith hitting another trey, cutting it to a 36-31 game and putting the #1 team in 3A on their heels. Willamina got a bucket from Hughes, but again it was Smith with the response from deep, now it was 38-34 late in the quarter. Despite being deep with foul trouble, the Aardvarks were believing that this was possible to pull off, and they were only four points shy of being even with the Bulldogs in a 40-36 game.
At this point of the game, Willamina was in trouble and their perfect season in jeopardy. The teams traded punches to start the fourth, but Smith upped her game and her range, drilling a trey from well beyond the line to get OES within 44-43. Scranton responds with a trey of her own, its once again a four-point lead for Willamina with 5:26 left. The freshman Ellie Johnson comes back to help Smith halfway through the fourth, drilling a trey to cut it to 49-46 Willamina. Johnson then gets a steal and passes it across the floor to Smith….49-48 Willamina and 3:24 left in the fourth. It is now 2:24 on the clock and Johnson receives an in-bound pass, hands it off to Smith, and Smith draws a foul from behind-the-arc. Not only that, it fouls out Willamina’s Bahley Scranton as OES can possibly take the lead after chipping away at the Bulldogs all evening long. Smith goes a perfect 3-3 from the charity stripe, OES has the lead on #1 Willamina 51-49.
Madi Diehl responds on the other end, it is a tied 51-all game in Willamina. A turnover turns into a transition play to Eaglestaff, it is 53-51 Bulldogs back out in front with 1:44 to play. On the next possession, Willamina crashes hard on the Johnson/Smith side, leaving Morgan Mathews wide open in the lane for a layup, it is tied again. With four seconds remaining, Willamina draws up a play to get the win, but OES breaks it up to force overtime all tied at 53 points apiece. The perfect season was in danger, but certainly still alive for Willamina. All they have to do is win a four-minute sprint with OES, it is their ticket to Coos Bay and their perfect year staying alive. Kena Rankin drove mid-range and hit the jumper, Willamina leads 55-53 in OT. Hollis Hale gets the call out of an OES timeout, hitting the mid-ranger and tying the game back up again with 3:08 left in OT. Willamina went back to Eaglestaff in the lane, now its 57-55 Bulldogs, but that would be the last thing that they would have left in them.
In a continuation of her legendary performance, Smith drew another foul on the three-point attempt, hitting two of the shots to tie it again. She turned around and drew another foul on the next possession, splitting two free throws to give OES the lead 58-57 with less than two minutes left in OT. Johnson hits a mid-range jumper after that, make it 60-57 Aardvarks on the undefeated Bulldogs, who sit 1:33 away from a historical upset. With Johnson and Smith being seemingly unbreakable, Willamina rolls the dice on Mathews and her free throw abilities. She hits two in a row to make it 62-57 OES in front, less than 60 seconds away from making history in Willamina. The final minute would be cemented in OES history, Smith and Mathews hitting the sealing charity shots to bring a historical upset into reality, 16-seeded OES upsetting undefeated #1 Willamina 65-58 in overtime. It knocked out the Bulldogs in the first round, sending the Aardvarks to Coos Bay for a date with Creswell, who knocked off Douglas in OT themselves to make it to the state quarterfinals.
Whether it was a lack of execution, bad luck, failure to adjust, etc., you can pin many things on Willamina’s downfall on that rainy Saturday night. Cayton Smith’s performance for OES was nothing short of legendary, going down as one of the best in playoff history, especially when you account for the historical significance of the moment. Ellie Johnson and Morgan Mathews should also be remembered for their key roles in those final minutes, not to mention Hollis Hale and her clutch basket early in the OT period. All of these girls orchestrated one of the most clutch, unpredictable, insane games I have ever watched, being nothing short of legendary in every aspect of the word. How their season will end is still to be determined, but the Aardvarks are confident that they have as good of a shot as anyone to bring home the blue trophy.
Footnote: Header Image is credited to OES Girls Basketball!