South Eugene wins quarterfinal game, preps for semifinals

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The win streak remains alive for the South Eugene High School girls basketball team.

The No. 2-ranked Axemen earned a spot in the OSAA Class 6A state tournament semifinals on Friday with a 49-46 win against No. 7-ranked Central Catholic at the Rose Garden. The win improved the Axemen to 25-3 -- all 25 wins coming against teams from Oregon (the three South Eugene losses came at the hands of two teams from Florida and one from Colorado in the non-conference season).

"I didn't think about that," said Axemen coach Steve Eastburn as he laughed. "I've been thinking about a lot of things except for that."

Eastburn had plenty to think about during Thursday's game against the Rams (20-6). South Eugene held a lead throughout most of the game, generally see-sawing between 4-8 points. However, the Axemen were clinging to a 40-35 lead to start the final quarter.

However, Central Catholic pulled within two points early in the fourth quarter before Central Catholic's Amanda Craig got a steal and fastbreak layin to tie the game 42-42 with 4:18 to play. Then with 2:11 to play, Central Catholic's Maddie Martin got a steal and layin to give the Rams a slim 46-45 lead.

Central Catholic couldn't build on its lead after Martin missed two free throws later, setting up the final minute of play. With 41 seconds to go, South Eugene's Mackenzi Kerins scored inside to give the Axemen a one-point lead. After a missed shot by Craig, South Eugene's Jessica Shivers pulled down a crucial rebound for the Axemen, which eventually led to South Eugene guard Jessie Brabender being fouled with nine seconds to play. She hit two free throws for a three-point cushion to set up a last attempt by Central Catholic. However, South Eugene's Ellen Cook blocked the potential game-tying three-pointer by Alex Dove as time expired to give the Axemen the win.

The close game was a bit of a double-edged sword for the Axemen because they have blown out most teams this season, winning by an average of nearly 18 points per game.

"Those are the kinds of games we look forward to because our league isn't very strong, so it feels really good just to be able to come into the state tournament and just really win a tough game," said Kerins, who had 17 points, 16 coming in the first half.

Cook was crucial for the Axemen, particularly in the fourth quarter. She hit a foul shot, scored inside and then got a key offensive rebound with 2:20 to play before her blocked shot at the end of the game. Cook finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and three steals and played all 32 minutes of the game.

"She really steps it up," Kerins said. "When we're having trouble pounding it inside, she just really steps up and just works outside and then gets her drives. She's a very strong driver and it's really good to have her play strong and just get our heads in the game and really play well for us."

The game was a rematch of an earlier game this season between the Axemen and Rams. In the fourth game of the season, the Axemen defeated the Rams 52-50 at the Nike Northwest Invitational at Southridge High School in Beaverton.

"We knew this was going to be a tough game and so toward the end, I have to admit I was scared," Kerins said.

Kerins and the rest of the Axemen don't have to be scared anymore, though. Wednesday's win propelled South Eugene into Friday's 3:15 p.m. semifinals game against No. 4-ranked Jesuit, which defeated No. 6-ranked Franklin 83-70 Wednesday in another quarterfinal game. South Eugene defeated Jesuit 50-47 in a game Dec. 4, also at the Nike Northwest Shootout at Southridge - the day before South Eugene's two-point win against Central Catholic earlier this season.

"We're going to get together tomorrow for a walk-through and get prepared for those guys and come back on Friday and play as hard as we can and see what happens," Eastburn said.

For the Axemen, it's one more step in their hopes of returning to the state championship game - the game they fell 46-37 to Oregon City last year.

"We're just really trying to get back to the championship game because losing last year there was so devastating, so we really want to get back there," Kerins said.

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