Philomath High's girls basketball team and their fans celebrate a 46-39 victory in the first round of the state playoffs on Friday night at Marist Catholic. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

EUGENE — Philomath High’s girls basketball team had seen it happen in other games this season. The team hits a wall offensively and struggles to finish shots while the opponent puts together a run and either builds an insurmountable lead or sets up a close finish.

The Warriors hit their wall in Friday’s first-round state playoff game at Marist Catholic over the final two minutes of the first quarter and the first four minutes of the second quarter. The home-court Spartans were on a 16-2 run and led by seven with 3:35 left in the first half.

Philomath needed a spark.

“One of our struggles this year is we’ve gotten into holes where we don’t do a good job or just struggle to score,” PHS coach Ben Silva said after his team’s 46-39 victory. “At the second quarter break, I told them, ‘someone’s going to have to step up — that’s how you get out of it — someone’s going to have to step up and make a play.’”

Sophomore Zoee Howard stopped an 11-0 Marist run early in the second quarter and sophomore Anneka Steen had a successful drive in the lane with just under 3 minutes left in the half. But senior Hailie Couture’s 3-pointer with 51 seconds left pulled the Warriors to within 21-19 and ultimately turned the tide.

“We hit that big 3 down there in the far corner and that was huge to give us a little bit of momentum going into halftime,” Silva said.

Philomath senior Hailie Couture scored a team-high 13 points. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath took the lead on a Couture jumper with 5:32 left in the third quarter and never trailed again to move on to the 4A state tournament March 9-11 at Forest Grove.

“Oh, I’m so excited,” Couture said after scoring a team-high 13 points. “We’re going four years in a row and back at Forest Grove where a couple of us got to be freshman year, so hopefully we can go get some results. It’s going to be fun.”

Although the team went to Forest Grove when this year’s seniors were freshmen, the Warriors never got to play. A few hours before the No. 1-ranked Warriors were scheduled to face Cottage Grove in the quarterfinals, word came down that the tournament had been canceled because of COVID.

Tenth-seeded Philomath (17-7) will face second-seeded Gladstone in the quarterfinals at 8:15 p.m. Thursday. The Gladiators advanced with a 69-36 victory over Junction City. The Warriors will be the only Oregon West school at the tournament with Cascade going down on Friday night with a 50-41 loss to Madras.

In the win over Marist Catholic, Silva knew his team just needed to settle down and find its groove.

“There were looks that were there in the first half but we turned the ball over too much,” he said. “You know, that’s to be expected a little bit, there’s some nerves there and a lot of energy in the gym.”

Philomath’s defense clogs up the middle. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Warriors took a 31-26 lead into the fourth quarter and went up by as many as nine points. But Marist stayed close with success on 3-pointers and trailed by just four with 21 seconds left. The Spartans had gone to fouling to put Philomath on the free-throw line. The Warriors made enough from the stripe to keep the lead and get the win.

The team’s 40-17 loss to Marist earlier this season was ancient history. The Warriors didn’t have Couture available to them and it just turned out to be one of those funky December tournament appearances that occur from time to time.

Following Monday’s dominating win over St. Helens, the Warriors began to build confidence and believe in themselves.

“We all really worked hard in practice,” Couture said. “When we all got to Wednesday, we were pretty tired but we still came out and wanted to win. We all want to be there (at state) next weekend. There’s a lot of grit among the seniors and just everybody on the team, so this was really fun.”

Freshman Emily Taunisila, who hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter and finished with 10 points, saw a total team effort. 

“I think we just worked as a team and had a lot of confidence in each other,” Taunisila said. “We looked good on the court, had some good looks and just had good teamwork overall.”

Silva had good knowledge about Marist’s capabilities going in from that December matchup and other game film.

“I think we’re starting to play with confidence now after a couple of bumps in the road,” he said. “We knew that they were a very capable team and led by those two seniors who are fantastic basketball players and so it was going to be a challenge to slow them down.”

Philomath changed up its defensive look in the second half. And that look involved intense pressure the length of the court.

PHS freshman Emily Taunisila buried two 3-pointers in the first quarter and finished with 10 points in the Warriors’ 46-39 win Friday at Marist Catholic. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“We knew that we could harass their guards full court and tire them out,” Silva said. “We saw some things on film that we felt like we could exploit and get enough points on the offensive end to get a win.”

Coming out for the second half, the players were focused on the task in front of them.

“Keeping your heads up, keep moving forward,” Taunisila said about the message she carried onto the floor. “It’s not just one person.”

Couture said it came down to determination.

“We all decided to pick each other up and just go get what we were looking for,” Couture said.

Marist senior Paige Doerr had a game-high 18 points for the Spartans with three of her baskets coming from beyond the 3-point line. Senior teammate Madison Holmes had 10. Marist finishes the season with a 17-7 record.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.