The Cottage Grove girls’ basketball team had won their first four Sky-Em games by an average margin of nearly 25 points. A game at Marist — in a hostile away environment, against a team perennially at the top of most sports standings — was shaping up to be a solid test of the girls’ mettle.
As the buzzer sounded last Friday, Jan. 31 in Eugene, the Lions (14-5, 5-0) had once again won a league contest by double digits, beating the Spartans (9-7, 4-1) 47-37 and — after an earlier win in the week against Junction City — taking over sole possession of first place in the Sky-Em league standings.
“Marist played really, really hard. We knew they would. They always do,” said Lions’ head coach Steve Eastburn after the game. “It was just two teams battling for first place, which makes it even more exciting.”
However, the relatively comfortable final margin of victory belies how close the game truly was.
The Lions took just a one point lead into the fourth quarter, 29-28, and the game remained tight until senior Ema Gardner foiled Marist’s last-ditch efforts.
With under a minute to play and down six, 43-37, the Spartans began fouling, counting on the Lions to miss their free throws and give themselves a chance to shoot their way back into the game. Gardner had different plans, going 4 for 4 from the free throw line in the final minute to put to rest any hopes of a Spartan comeback.
“I just kept telling myself that I couldn’t miss,” Gardner said. “Because when the [Marist] student section is in your ear, it makes it harder and you’re like, ‘I gotta prove it to them that I can put it in the basket’, so I was just mentally telling myself that I was gonna put ‘em in.”
And put them in she did. Gardner finished her all-around game with 4 rebounds, 4 assists and a block, but it was her unselfishness in helping the team facilitate its offense, getting the ball in the post to utilize the Lions’ size and strength advantage, where her presence was most felt throughout the game. Including fellow senior Megan Schatz, the Lions are rarely without a cool, experienced head on the court.
“I think we have really good senior leadership this year. They really hold everything together,” said Eastburn.
Cottage Grove roared out of the gates, opening up an early 12-0 lead and not allowing Marist to score their first points until halfway through the second quarter, but until late in the final period, much of the rest of the game belonged to Marist who outscored the Lions 28-20 in the second and third quarters.
“At some points it was a little rough out there,” said junior post player Matty Ladd. “But in the end we’re a team and I just kept reminding everyone of that. I think at the end we definitely came together and played well.”
Ladd used her height and strength advantage en route to 13 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks, scoring a number of key baskets late in the second half. Ladd’s partner down low, sophomore Gracie Arnold, once again proved her scoring prowess, pouring in 19 points to go with 3 steals before fouling out with 1:40 left to play.
All in all, it was an important test for a team that has high hopes come playoff time and, by the end, the game metrics — and final score — showed a superior team with a chance to make some postseason noise.
“It was definitely different because people we have been playing haven’t been putting that pressure on us,” said Gardner. “So playing here tonight was fun for us. It was good for us because now we know what we need to work on.”
In the earlier game, the Cottage Grove boys (5-14, 1-4) faced an even more difficult test and were taken down by the #2-ranked Spartans, 54-37, but were almost entirely done in by a scoreless second quarter. After multi-game absences due to injury, the Lions got back sophomore point guard Landon Colburn and freshman post Brennan Murphy and will look to close the season strong with a healthy roster.
Both teams next play tomorrow, Fri., Feb. 7 at home against Marshfield. The girls game begins at 5:45 p.m. followed by the boys at 7:15.