The Grant girls basketball team was overcome by the South Salem Saxons on Saturday at the Chiles Center. Although the Grant girls, who ranked 4th in state, didn’t make it to the finals, their appearance in the quarterfinals this year is historic. The Grant team hasn’t accomplished this feat since 1989. After South Ridge knocked the Generals out as first place contenders in a 58-53 loss on Friday in the semi-finals, the girls went on to play for third in the state.
The girls weren’t intimidated by the high stakes. “It doesn’t really feel like all this pressure’s on us, we’re just playing our game and having fun,” sophomore Amaya Aldridge said before the game. “I feel like we’ve been extra motivated because of that, because of the fact that we could be making history.”
The Grant girls started the game off strong. Initially, the team dominated South Salem with their physical play, ending the first quarter with a 24-8 lead. But by the end of the second quarter – led by senior guard Evina Westbrook who ranks second nationally for the class of 2017 – South Salem came within just three points of the Generals at 34-37.
In the second half, the Generals started to lose their heat, shooting just 23.3% from the field compared to 46.4% the first half. And with nearly six minutes left in the fourth quarter, South Salem caught their first lead of the game. Worry began to show on the faces of the girls sitting on the Grant bench as they watched, restless. One girl bent over and tapped her knuckles anxiously against the wooden floor, hoping for some extra luck. Others hid their faces behind their shirts, gazing intently over their collars.
When the final buzzer sounded, South Salem was up 58-53. All emotion seemed to drain from the faces of the girls on the bench as they slowly rose to their feet, shuffling forward to meet their teammates with extended hands. The girls huddled close together as Kendra Gardner, the head coach, proceeded to tell them how proud she was.
“Let’s accept our hard work with class,” Gardner said before the girls headed off to congratulate the Salem team.
The devastation and disappointment was almost palpable. Senior Khiarica Rasheed clutched the fifth place trophy in her hands as the girls gathered for a team photo. But smiles were few and half-hearted.
“It’s a disappointing finish to a really good season,” Gardner said, although she managed to focus on the bright side. “I’m really proud of the girls, we played really hard and for us to get here after almost thirty years for the Grant team not making it is a big accomplishment.”
Despite the losses, the girls haven’t lost confidence. “We’ll be back somehow, some way, because of how competitive we are and my team’s willingness to work and the talent that we still have on the team. I’m confident in that we’ll be back,” Aldridge says.
Sophomore Daryn Hickok agrees, and she’s viewing the loss as motivation for next year. “I was really hoping we wouldn’t lose because we had a game very similar to this preseason,” she says. “But I’m still happy we made it this far. And if anything, we can use this as an area of growth, where we know what’s here, we know the energy, we know how much harder the teams are, and we’ll just be more prepared next time.”
Seniors Aliya Ewell, Radford and Rasheed will be leaving the Grant team next year. Radford and Rasheed are moving on to play basketball at UC Santa Barbara and Northern Arizona University, respectively. Ewell won’t be playing basketball in college.
Though sad she’ll be leaving the Grant team next year, Radford is looking forward to seeing how the girls carry on without the seniors. “I think next year it’ll be a big adjustment for them,” Radford says. “But I think they’ll be fine, and I have confidence in them to do great things.”
The younger players recognize their responsibilities as rising leaders. “They have brought everything to the team, they’ve contributed so much,” Marin Leonard, a sophomore, says about the seniors. “It’s going to be hard not having those senior leaders to look up to, so we’re all going to have to step up and not underestimate ourselves for next year. We still have to keep pushing and working hard, and we all have to stick together.”