PENDLETON — Trailing by eight points at halftime, the Heppner Mustangs had a two-step plan to overcome Union on Saturday at the Blue Mountain Conference District Tournament: cut the lead in half by the end of the third, push for the finish line in the fourth.
The Mustangs got the deficit down to three in the district’s third-place game at the Pendleton Convention Center, but there was no gas left in the tank for Step 2. Union’s Keesha Sarman took over in the fourth quarter to help the Bobcats to a 51-39 victory and the third spot from the BMC for the Class 2A state playoffs.
Sarman, a sophomore, dropped a game-high 29 points. Heppner coach Jeremy Wilson knew the Union offense runs at a lower level if the opposition can make her a non-factor. She’s so dynamic driving to the hoop that the Mustangs initially blocked that off to try and cut into her production.
“We were going to force her to shoot the ball from outside,” Wilson said. But after Sarman sunk a 3-pointer in the first quarter, Heppner had to come up with something new because, “She earned that respect quickly.”
Sarman lived in the lane in the fourth quarter. She scored 12 in the final frame and kept Union (18-7) out of harm’s way late. And while the Bobcats were visiting the scoreboard with high frequency, Heppner failed to score in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter.
“I think we were working so hard on our defense, we weren’t V-cutting on our offense,” said Heppner’s Alan Wilson, who scored 10 points and drained her energy trying to match up with Sarman. “It was really the defense that was making us tired because we had to work so hard.”
Sarman, the Blue Mountain Conference girls’ basketball player of the year last season, caused fits all around for Heppner. Along with her massive scoring output, the guard added five steals and 12 rebounds. That second figure is the one she was most proud of after the game.
The Bobcats won the battle on the boards 40-33.
“We wanted to do some extreme boxing out, we had to box out,” she said. “A lot of our games this season were won and lost on the boards.”
Sarman called Saturday’s contest one of Union’s best rebounding games of the year — outside of what Heppner’s Baily Bennett was able to accomplish. Bennett had a game-high 15 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. She went for 14 points as well to lead her team.
Midway through the league season, Heppner sat in the driver’s seat of the Blue Mountain. Some crucial losses in the final month, including one at home to Union and a battle of top teams in Enterprise last weekend, sent the Mustangs into the tournament as the fourth seed. The Mustangs lost the tiebreakers after three teams were knotted in a tie for second place.
Heppner had to beat Weston-McEwen on Friday to earn a berth to state.
The Mustangs and Bobcats will each play first-round playoff games on Saturday.