By Mike Weber

For the Baker City Herald

FOREST GROVE — The Baker girls basketball team did something Saturday night that no previous Bulldogs girls squad had done.

Baker outlasted Marist 51-48 to claim the Class 4A state championship.

The historic achievement added to the team’s list of accomplishments in a season that was one blemish from perfection.

Baker finished with a 25-1 record, winning the final 19 games after its lone loss, 61-46 at Burns on Dec. 15.

“We’re just like one big family and I knew this team was capable of winning the title,” said Mat Sand, who finished his fourth season as Baker’s coach.

“We set goals and we set some other things that we wanted to achieve as the season went on. I just knew at the beginning of the season that this team was very special. As a coach, you just try to get the players to believe in you and buy into what we’re (assistant coaches Shawn Berry, Amy Younger) teaching the team and they did that. They believed in themselves throughout the season and it showed with our record.”

As with Baker’s comeback win over Stayton in the quarterfinals Thursday, and its narrow win Friday over Philomath in the semifinals, the championship game was a battle.

Marist, which upset top-seeded Marshfield in the quarterfinals, was seeking its second straight state title. The Spartans, from Eugene, won the girls Class 5A title in 2018.

“I know that we were going to be in a fight in every game at the tournament,” said Sand, who has taken the Bulldogs to the state tournament each of the past three years. “Being here the last two years and not getting anywhere, we knew that nobody would let us just walk all over them. The girls just played their hearts out, they fought hard and they played with a high energy level. The togetherness and the unity they displayed throughout the tournament is just something special. This is just something that you dream of as a coach and it really fulfills the expectations I had this year. I love basketball, I love to teach the girls and they just did a great job.”

Saturday’s game, like Baker’s two earlier wins, came down to the fourth quarter, which featured three ties and four lead changes.

After Sydney Younger’s two free throws gave Baker a 39-37 lead with 6:28 left in the game, Marist’s Madison Ficek, who led all scorers with 17 points, scored four straight points to give the Spartans a 41-39 lead with 5:21 left.

It was Marist’s final lead.

Jayme Ramos, who led Baker with 14 points, made two free throws to tie the score with 4:41 remaining.

Ramos’ fellow senior, Rose Gwillim, then took a pass from Isabella Nemec and sliced through the lane for a layin that gave Baker the lead for good, at 43-41, with 4:14 left.

After two misses by Marist, Gwillim passed to Ramos cutting to the basket for a layup that boosted Baker’s lead to 45-41 with 3:26 left.

Ficek’s jumper cut Baker’s lead to 45-43 with 2:34 left, but on the other end the Gwillim-to-Ramos connection worked again, and Baker led 47-43 with 2:09 remaining.

But Marist didn’t go away.

Ruby Vlahov made two free throws with 1:48 to cut the lead to 2 again, at 47-45.

Baker then took advantage of its free throw shooting.

Nemec made 1 of 2, and Sydney Keller made a pair to boost Baker’s lead to 50-45 with 42 seconds left.

Ficek swished a three-pointer with 25 seconds left, but Gwillim made 1 of 2 free throws for the final margin.

Baker shot 72 percent (16-for-22) from the line, while Marist was 4-for-8 (50 percent).

“I just can’t explain how awesome it feels to win the championship,” said Gwillim, who was named to the all-tournament first team. “We just had to come out and play our best basketball and we had to fight and grind it out the entire game. It feels great, it’s just unbelievable and I’ll savor this accomplishment for the rest of my life. They (Marist) are a very good team. They didn’t have quite as many players from the team of a year ago. We knew that they had the experience and we knew that they were going to be really good, but we liked having the challenge.”

It marked the second state title for Gwillim, who played on the Monroe Dragons 2017 Class 2A state championship team before moving to Baker for her final two years of high school.

“I’m so happy and I just love all my teammates and we couldn’t have won without everyone making such key contributions throughout the tournament,” Gwillim said. “This is something that we’ve all dreamed about since the beginning of the season. It’s actually been our goal for the last two years and we finally accomplished it.”

Ramos, who was named the Moda Health Player of the Game, also used the word “unbelievable” to describe bringing Baker High School its first girls state basketball championship.

“It doesn’t even feel like it has really happened right now,” Ramos said. “For our three seniors, we definitely went out with a bang and it was a good way to finish our basketball careers. It’s just an amazing accomplishment for our team. I really can’t find the words to explain how happy I am. It’s just the best season ever for the Baker High girls basketball team.”

Baker’s other senior, Alayna Calaway, has been sidelined by an injury.

Gwillim, who also had seven rebounds and three assists, and Keller, scored early to help Baker build a 5-4 lead in the first quarter. Marist, the second place team from the Sky-Em League, had a 7-2 run to go up 11-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Baker came back in the second quarter, trimming the deficit to 11-10 on a three-point play by Ramos, who scored on a jumper in the lane and then sank a free throw following a Marist foul. Marist seemed to regain the momentum though with 9-3 run to build a 20-13 lead with 3:00 left in the quarter.

Baker then displayed it’s highly prolific offensive attack to regain the advantage. The junior trio of Anna Carter, Nemec and Sydney Younger combined on an impressive 10-0 rally to put Baker on top. Following a 20-20 deadlock, Younger fired in a three-pointer from the top of the arc with four seconds to help Baker take a 23-20 halftime lead.

“It just feels so unreal right now and I just don’t know how to explain how happy I am,” Nemec said.

“It feels so good and we all worked together so well for the whole tournament,” Nemec said. “We’ve proved that we’re pretty good at making comebacks. I was really nervous at the beginning of the tournament, because the last two years we came here, we lost both games. This is the year we finally showed up to play good basketball. This was our goal and we had expectations of winning the championship at the beginning of the year.”

Baker took its largest lead of the game early in the third quarter when Younger sank two free throws, putting the Bulldogs up 27-22 with 6:39 left in the quarter.

Baker led 34-33 entering the dramatic fourth quarter.

“We definitely had a goal of getting back to the tournament and we were focusing on having success here by just coming out and playing hard in every game,” Ramos said.

Following the final buzzer, the Bulldogs had an emotional victory celebration on the court with hugs, high-fives and screams of joy from players, coaches and fans.

Baker 61, Philomath 56

Baker advanced to Saturday’s championship game with a semifinal win Friday that was almost as thrilling.

Baker’s 61-56 win over the No. 6 ranked Philomath Warriors (23-4) featured a similarly dramatic final quarter, although the circumstances were quite different initially.

After the teams tied at 23 in the second quarter, Baker scored the final seven points of the quarter to take a 30-23 lead at halftime.

Baker’s aggressive man-to-man defense was outstanding in the quarter, limiting the Warriors to just 6 points, while the Bulldogs totaled 16.

Baker extended its advantage in the third quarter by continuing its aggressive defense and forcing Warrior turnovers and then scoring on transition baskets.

Gwillim was fouled on a Baker possession and she sank two free throws, making it 32-23 with 6:26 left in the third quarter. As it would be the following night, free throw shooting was a key factor in Baker’s victory. The Bulldogs shot 70.6 percent (24-for-34). Philomath shot just 45.5 percent (10-for-22).

The teams then traded baskets and Baker remained on top 36-27 following a 12-foot baseline jumper by Nemec. Younger then connected on a three-pointer, giving Baker a double-digit 39-27 advantage with 5:11 left in the third quarter.

Younger’s two free throws lifted Baker in front 41-28 with 3:53 left in the quarter. Baker matched the 13-point lead two other occasions in the quarter. Keller, who had a game-high five steals along with six rebounds and six points, sank a free throw line jumper, making it 43-30 with 3:02 left.

Gwillim then proved to be an unstoppable offensive weapon for Baker. Her turnaround jumper in the lane made it 47-34. Then in what was undoubtedly one of the highlight’s of the contest, Keller grabbed a rebound and then threw a length-of-the-court pass to Gwillim, who scored on a fast break layup, making it 47-34. The Bulldogs led 47-38 after three.

Baker’s momentum continued in the fourth — at least for the first half of the quarter.

A Ramos three-pointer from the top of the arc made it 51-39 with 4:12 left in the game.

But Philomath responded with a rapid 8-0 run, and suddenly it looked as though Baker, which beat Stayton in Thursday’s quarterfinals with an improbable fourth-quarter comeback, might be on the opposite side of a nearly miraculous rally.

Philomath went on a another run, this time scoring 10 of 13 points to tie the score at 54 with 1:32 left.

Following an exchange of turnover, Gwillim scored on a layup in the lane, putting Baker up 56-54 with 1:15 left.

After trading baskets, Baker led 58-56 with 18 seconds left. A Gwillim free throw made it 59-56.

On Philomath’s ensuing possession, Younger grabbed a rebound of a missed Warrior shot and was fouled with eight seconds remaining. Younger calmly sank both from the line for the 61-56 final margin.

“I can’t even explain how exciting it is to be in the championship game and I just feel so proud of all my teammates,” Younger said. “We usually shoot about 30 free throws every day at practice, so we really work on them a lot. It’s sometimes just all a mental thing to shoot free throws accurately. We played with a lot of heart and we just wanted to win so badly against Philomath, so that we could reach the championship.”

“We put everything together for four quarters today against Philomath, which is something that we didn’t do in our first game against Stayton,” Sand said after Friday’s win. “The way we played in this game was the same way that we’ve played all year. We ran the floor well, we grabbed rebounds, we made clutch free throws and hit some key shots and we just played consistent basketball.”

Gwillim led the Bulldogs with 18 points. She also grabbed a season-high 20 rebounds.

“My goal every game is to try and limit our opponent to just one shot and one of my main roles is to get defensive rebounds,” said Gwillim, who won the Moda Health Player of the Game Award for the second straight game.

Friday’s semifinal against Philomath, the Oregon West Conference Champion, was a seesaw affair early.

The Warriors built a five point lead at 15-10 and were on top 17-14 after one quarter.

The two squads continued trading baskets with Philomath on top 21-16 midway through the second quarter. A 5-0 Baker run, capped by Younger’s driving layup in the middle of the lane, knotted it 21-21 with 3:56 on the clock.

Looking ahead

The school’s first girls state basketball title was a fitting end to the BHS careers for Gwillim, Ramos and Calaway.

“I love those girls, they’re the core group of our team and it’s just going to be very difficult to replace them,” Sand said. “I feel so proud of our entire team, including the players on our bench. They’re all very excited and very supportive, while cheering for each other. We’ve worked hard to try and teach that everyone has a role on the team. Each player has a role that is just as important as the role of any player on the team and the kids have really bought into that concept.”

Gwillim and Ramos capped their Baker High School basketball careers when they were recently selected as Greater Oregon League Co-Players of the Year.

Younger was named to the first team, and Keller and Nemec earned second-team honors.