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Sophomore sixth man steps up huge for Southridge, Skyhawks advance to 6A semis

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Southridge girls basketball team congratulates Kaylen Blair after her and-one three-point play against Clackamas in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

The early scare, while startling, turned out to be nothing more than a slight wake up call for the reigning state champs.

Southridge took Clackamas' best haymaker attempt in the Class 6A quarterfinals on Thursday, falling behind 15-5 at the end of the first quarter after consecutive Cavalier threes closed out the period. One of those triples was banked in from the Portland Pilot logo along the right side of the floor just in front of the Skyhawk bench.

But Southridge, with its ample offensive firepower and demoralizing defense, can surmount any upstart's upset attempt. Leading 34-29 at the end of three, Southridge roared away from Clackamas with Cameron Brink, Maya Hoff and Kaylen Blair all sparking a 17-2 run that sealed a 57-42 win at the Chiles Center.

No. 1 Southridge will face No. 4 West Linn on Friday at 1:30 p.m. at the Chiles Center.

"Everybody has a humongous target on us," Southridge senior Maggie Freeman said. "I think we came out a little bit soft and didn't really play the game we know how to play on defense. But today showed every team is out to beat us. They don't have anything to lose. Everybody wants us to lose. But we're excited for Friday. It's round two, the semifinals. Let's go."

The bullseye on the back Southridge's jersey has never been bigger. With Brink's stature growing on the national scene, Freeman's deadly outside shooting, Natalie Hoff's versatile dexterity and the emergence of bench players such as Blair, the defending state titlists are the envy of every team remaining in the state field. Whoever they play the next two games will approach them with the same kind of tenacity and conviction that Clackamas competed with for three quarters. But to beat Southridge requires an unimaginable amount of competitive fire, exertion and execution with a little luck thrown in. And honestly, most teams don't have the horsepower to play 32 minutes with the Skyhawks. They're too big, athletic, too skilled, too lethal across the board. There isn't a weak link in the rotation. Eventually, as the case was against Clackamas, Southridge's talent level corroded away the Cavs.

"We know it's a marathon, not a sprint," Freeman said. "They were playing with a lot of intensity, but we always play that way. Once the second half came around we knew they'd wear down because we play with that same intensity all the time. Clackamas got us out of rhythm, but once we got it back, it's hard for a lot of teams to keep up with that. No matter what team we're playing, we're going to have to play as hard as we can all the time."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior Natalie Hoff carves inside for a two-point hoop against Clackamas in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

In a contest where Clackamas was determined to limit Freeman's scoring opportunities by deploying a box-and-one defense on the knockdown outside shooter, Blair played the best game of her young career. The Skyhawk sophomore scored a game-high 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting including two three-pointers and a crucial and-one three-point play after an offensive rebound that gave Southridge the lead for good, 30-27, late in the third quarter.

"When I hit my first three, I felt way more confident," Blair said. "I just had to keep shooting and hopefully my shots would keep falling. It just felt really good to help my team. We have four or five girls off the bench who can come in, play their butts off and play with the team."

Combined, Brink, Hoff and Freeman went 6-for-26 from the field as the Cavs keyed in heavily on the three headliners. Thankfully for the Hawks, Blair was there to answer the bell, confidently stepping into three-point looks, cannoning herself into Cavalier defenders for offensive boards and providing imperative offensive opportunities.

Blair was named Southridge's Moda Health Player of the Game for her indelible impact. Southridge's array of weapons already runs deep with Brink, Freeman and Natalie Hoff. But mix in the stellar recent play of Maya Hoff, McKelle Meek and Blair to the picture and the Skyhawks look even more formidable moving forward into Friday and most likely Saturday.

"Kaylen stepped up big-time, we wouldn't have had the game that we did without her," Freeman said. "She got us back on a roll with her first and-one. She kept playing hard, kept getting open looks. We need her to play like that the rest of the tournament."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior wing Maggie Freeman goes up toward the rim for a righty layup attempt against Clackamas in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

The Cavaliers were an entirely different team than the one that Southridge boatraced back at the Nike Interstate Shootout in December, coming out hot from the three-point line while handling Southridge's incessant defensive pressure. Yet, the Hawks gathered themselves in the second quarter, holding the Cavs to two points. Southridge scored seven points in a single minute span in the second quarter, relying on takeaways and transition while Clackamas went cold. Blair made a three during that stretch and Meek put home a Freeman miss. Hoff ducked underneath and coiled around two Cavalier posts for a finish inside that tied it 17-17 at the half.

Clackamas stayed close in the third. Olivia Morris made a three that tied that game up at 27-27. But Blair's and-one three-point play ignited both the Skyhawk bench and her four teammates on the floor with her. Natalie Hoff scored four points to end the third and gave Southridge a 34-29 lead at the end of the frame. Then Maya Hoff opened the fourth quarter with a three from the left corner to go up 37-29.

"The second half is when we pick it up and start coming together as a team," Blair said.

Brink scored five consecutive points in the fourth, Blair poured in seven more of 13 second-half points and Southridge's swarming, all-encompassing defense caved in the Cavalier offense. Brink, who hurt her left ankle in the second round of the playoffs against Canby, blocked three shots and contested countless more on the defensive end. She also pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds, six on the offensive end, to go along with nine points. Maya Hoff scored 10 points in her state tournament debut and Natalie Hoff added eight. Southridge had 16 second-chance points with 18 offensive rebounds as a team and also went to the free throw line 30 times, making 18.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge freshman Maya Hoff scored 10 points for the Skyhawk girls basketball team against Clackamas.

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