TACOMA - In the wee hours, at least for basketball, when the sneaker squeaks echoed throughout a hollow and barely awakened Tacoma Dome, Meme Lewis-Roberts and her young but collossal Chief Sealth cohorts sent a message as distinct as the aroma that often grips this City of Destiny. That is, the exlicir for success in the 2004 State 3A Girls Basketball Championships would be a lethal combination of perimeter lightning and inside thunder. In this case, with Lewis-Roberts supplying the lightning and a pair of freshman teammates providing ample thunder.
The tone, set so demonstrably by the Seahawks in Wednesday's tipoff contest, carried throughout the day, until Alice Russell and Allie Picha put the tournament's opening session to bed by leading Bainbridge to a convincing first-round victory.
In addition to establishing a blueprint for success, the day also served to lop the 3A have-nots from the 3A haves. Save for Clarkston's at-the-wire, 45-43 victory over Sehome, each of the other seven games was a runaway (though Bainbridge's margin of victory was an artificial 10 points, courtesy of the Spartans' late, complacency-induced turnover fest and River Ridge's refusal to go quietly to the loser's bracket).
The biggest runaways came early, with Sealth taking Black Hills 73-43 and West Valley thumping Kennedy 57-17 to set up the first real telltale matchup of the tourney - the quarterfinal game between the two dominant victors at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Sealth's early success begged the question all day of whether the Seahawks are true contenders in spite of their abundant youth. Sealth certainly has more 6-foot-plus girls listed on their roster than any team in the tournament. Three of those are listed at 6-4, though whispers in the Tacoma Dome hallways suggested they were closer to 6-2. Measuring sticks aside, one freshman starter, Regina Rogers, is a physically imposing force inside, while another, Christina Nzekwe, has such athleticism and skill that, if she develops some concommitant court awareness, she could be one of the top college prospects this state has produced in a while.
Those two, as well as Leah Rogers (6-4) and Brenee Mullen (6-1), not only suck defenses into the paint like so many Hoovers, they wall off the paint at the other end, the sum of which allows Lewis-Roberts to wreak havoc, which she did to the tune of 25 points. Lest everyone dwell too much on Sealth's youth, keep in mind that Lewis-Roberts already has played in one 3A championship game, as a sophomore with Eastside Catholic, and is an experienced hand in just the right place - guard - for an otherwise inexperienced team.
In the end, Black Hills, which placed third in last year's tournament, was so overmatched, the Wolves could have used their 6-9 coach, Todd Franklin, who played at Gonzaga.
"My goodness," Franklin said afterward. "We were just outsized."
Asked how many similarly sized teams his team had faced this year, Franklin said, "None. We faced a 6-3 center in districts. But that was only one. We can deal with that. When there are three or four, that's tough to match up with."
Black Hills' strategy was to penetrate the Sealth defense and pitch the ball out to its shooters, the strength of the team. But the Seahawks' mostly person-to-person defense barely bent, and Lewis-Roberts and Valerie Cook applied the clamps out top on the ball. The Wolves consequently shot a paltry 27.3 percent, their poor shooting amplified at the other end of the floor, where Sealth goggled up nearly 60 percent of the available offensive rebounds.
"Their defense doesn't collapse," Franklin noted. "It doesn't need to."
Like Black Hills, the state's No. 2 ranked team, West Valley from Yakima, is coached by a tall (6-8) former Gonzaga player. The difference is, West Valley's Jason Rubright has some size, most of it in 6-1 Lauren Olander, who can mix it up inside yet is mobile enough to have run Kennedy's 6-4 Carly Koebel ragged. The Rams' lightning comes in sophomore point guard Cassidy Murillo, who struck for 19 points, including a trio of three-pointers.
Most impressively, West Valley's suffocating defense held Kennedy, the young but definitely talented Seamount champions, to a tournament-record low of 17 points, just a combined 10 in the second through fourth quarters alone.
Also separating West Valley from Sealth's first-round victims is some experience in facing large opposition. During a preseason tournament in California, the Rams took Charlotte (N.C.) Christian High School and its 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 front line to overtime.
"Play solid on the perimeter and don't let them establish down low," Rubright said, "and you give yourself a chance."
Getting past West Valley does not earn Sealth any free passes to the championship game, however. Their likely semifinal opponent would be No. 1 Meadowdale, which had a surprisingly easy time with Blanchet (54-32) and surrounds its all-star post, Quinn Brewe, with an assortment of dead-eye shooters (to wit, Anne Martin's game-high 20 points, including five three-pointers). The Lady Mavs should have enough for Squalicum, although Storm center Tashina Taylor produced the glossiest box-score line of the day with 27 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks.
Meadowdale showed it could be vulnerable to the overall team speed of Sealth or West Valley when it was run off the court earlier this season by pressure-intensive Snohomish on the Lady Mavs' home floor. And, unlike Snohomish, Sealth and West Valley both interior depth to at least match Brewe inside.
Knocking out the No. 2 and No. 1 teams on consecutive days could, oddly enough, earn Sealth an even more daunting challenge - a rematch against Bainbridge, which represents the only speed bump during the Seahawks' drive through January and February which netted them 20 victories in a span of 21 games.
First things first, the Spartans must contend with Rainier Beach, with which they have split two games already this season. The Vikings are the true wild card of the tournament because they are the most athletic and most inconsistent of the contenders. Beach may have athleticism in droves, but the format of the four-games-in-four-days tournament favors the teams that can grind it out and, subsequently, makes it likely for the sprinters to fizzle before reaching the tape. Plus, although Jemeika Newsome provides more-than-capable inside presence, RB really feeds off the star power of Jacqua Williams, who devastated Tyee with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, six rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks.
"They have Jacqua Williams," Bainbridge Coach Penny Gienger said. "I have Alice Russell."
Indeed, but don't count Bainbridge - or Rainier Beach, for that matter - through the bottom half of the bracket just yet. The true spoiler of the tournament could turn out to be Clarkston, which has the thunder-lightning combo in 6-2 Abby Johnson, the second-leading scorer in the Greater Spokane League, and wing Misty Atkinson, a freshman revelation who had the best individual outing of Wednesday's session. Not only did she light up Sehome for 25 points, seven rebounds and three steals, Atkinson downed 11 of 14 shots and calmly drilled the game-winning three with 56 seconds to play.
Not only that, but Clarkston is unbeaten this year against 3A teams because its only losses are in the Greater Spokane League, home of the state's second (Lewis & Clark), fifth (University) and sixth (Central Valley) ranked 4A teams. All that 4A toughening helped the Bantams leave a calling card with West Valley in the form of a 47-45 victory over the state's second-ranked team in the Eastern Region final. And that, with Johnson in foul trouble for much of the game.
"Our press really caused them problems," Clarkston Coach Len Kelly said. "They were frustrated and they are not easily frustrated."
Gulp - can you say Sealth vs. Clarkston? Conventional wisdom probably projected a Meadowdale-Bainbridge final or West Valley-Bainbridge. But if the first day set the tone for the ensuing three, the only convention that may be followed is that the spoils will go to the swift and super-sized.
More Tournament Coverage:
State 3A, 1A Tournaments: Results, boxscores and matchups from Tacoma and Yakima.
Road to State: Results and matchups from league and district tournaments from 1A to 4A.