By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
SPRINGFIELD - Friday's game had everything you could have asked for in a state championship, and likely more.
No. 1 Vashon. No. 2 Benton. Best-on-best. Momentum changes. Big runs. Overtime. Controversial calls. The whole smash.
Sadly, for Benton, the thriller didn't have the desired ending.
The Cardinals led 55-44 with 4:03 left in the fourth quarter, but Vashon went on a 15-4 run to force overtime.
The Wolverines never trailed in either overtime period, and Vashon held on to win 79-77 in double overtime in the Class 4 girls' state basketball championship at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield Friday.
"My girls are going to fight until the very end in everything that they do," Benton coach Chris Michaels said after. "They'll never going to give up. These are the people you want to come interview for applications for jobs and all of those things. These are the girls you want working for you."
The Cardinals (28-4) rallied early after getting down 15-6 in the first quarter. Benton got it to within 18-14 at the end of the first, but Vashon still held a 26-21 at halftime.
The Cardinals came out on fire in the third quarter, starting the second half on an 11-0 run. Benton grabbed its first lead of the game, 28-26, with 6:37 left in the third after a three-pointer by freshman Eliana Arambula.
Benton's third quarter lead grew to 40-33, but Vashon got it to within 40-38 by the start of the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals' biggest advantage came midway through the fourth when senior Peyton Anderson converted on an 'and-one' to put Benton up 55-44 with 4:03 left.
After that, however, Vashon proceeded to hit a trio of three-pointers and the Wolverines got back to within 59-53.
"You're not going to hold them down," Michaels said on the challenge of defending a Vashon team that has two Division I commits and three 1,000+ point scorers in the starting lineup.
"You're just going to have to try and control how fast they score, and we changed up a lot of defenses and threw a lot of things at them to try and keep them guessing at what may be coming. I thought my girls executed the game plan, and (Vashon) made one more shot than we did."
A couple minutes later, after a flurry of missed free throws by Benton, Vashon's Raychel Jones tied the game at 59-59 with an unassisted layup with 28 seconds left in regulation.
After another Benton turnover, Vashon had a chance at a winning three in the closing seconds, but the shot was off the mark, and the game went into the first OT.
The Cardinals had chances to ice the game in regulation, but were held scoreless for the final 2:27 of the fourth quarter. Benton also missed their last six free throw attempts in a row to end the fourth.
After halftime, Benton was 6-for-21 at the free throw line, finishing 10-for-26 on the day. Vashon made 17-of-25.
Benton was held without a made field goal for the first 4:32 of the first overtime. Down 65-62 with 31 seconds left, Anderson inbounded the ball to an open Avery Morlock, who buried a corner three to knot the game at 65 and send it to a second OT.
Once again, the Cardinals were unable to score a field goal for the first four minutes of the second overtime. In that same time, Vashon made a three-pointer and seven free throws to go up 75-66 with just 1:03 to go.
Benton never quit. Layups by Arambula and sophomore Andrea Simmons got it to within 75-70 with 43 seconds left.
Vashon missed four free throws themselves within the final 50 seconds of the second OT, but the Wolverines made a critical pair of them to go up 77-70 with 39 seconds left.
Arambula hit a late three, and Kelsey Johnson a late layup, but Benton simply ran out of time, and Vashon held on to win their first ever state championship in girls' basketball. It marked the Wolverines' first appearance in a girls' state title game as well.
All five Benton starters finished in double figures. Senior Kelsey Johnson ended her final varsity game with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four assists, three steals and two blocks.
Arambula had her best game of the season with 19 points. Simmons logged a double-double with 15 points and 16 rebounds.
Morlock and Anderson, who fouled out in the second OT, each scored 10 points.
It marked the final game for Anderson, Johnson and senior reserves Andee Magness and Seanna Campbell.
"Here's all that needs to be said to every girl who stands on that floor and they just need to know I love them," Michaels said gratefully. "I love them so much."
Benton so badly wanted the first place trophy after a fourth place finish at the Final Four in 2021, and a runner-up finish last year, too.
Friday's contest was a thrilling, hard fought, epic battle between the two best teams in the state. It didn't the way Benton had hoped, but Michaels reminds his team - there's so much to be proud of.
The only team in St. Joseph history, boys or girls, to make three straight Final Fours. The most wins in a single season since 2015-16. And the fourth ever appearance in a state title game in program history.
"Everybody who paid to get in here got their money's worth and that's what we want to do every time we come out," Michaels said. "We want to play until the very end so these people who come and watch us...they drove all the way from St. Joe to watch, and we might as well give them the best game that we can, and my girls take that to heart."
Full game broadcast
Chris Michaels interview
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