NAMPA — Aspen Caldwell shook her fist and screamed, inspiring a party on her Thunder Ridge team’s bench. Teammates jumped and yelled and laughed between their socially-distanced chairs. The 3-pointer wasn’t unusual, but it was enormous, considering the stage of this 5A state tournament. The Titans were surging ahead of Meridian in the opening round.
If that was enormous, what the sophomore did next was even more impressive. She snatched a steal, raced the other way and laid in a layup. Thunder Ridge took a 13-point lead. Meridian looked stunned.
“I’ve been kind of in a slump,” Caldwell said. “It was just nice to come out.”
There might be no better way to explain Thunder Ridge’s 66-55 win over Meridian Thursday afternoon at the Idaho Center than detailing the way Caldwell changed the game both early and especially late, helping the Titans move into Friday’s semifinals with an outing she’ll remember long past her playing days.
Caldwell tied a career high with 26 points, including 14 in the first half and 10 in the fourth quarter, which delivered the early separation and eventually put the final nail in the coffin late. Caldwell’s first-quarter production forced Meridian to play catch-up the whole way. The Warriors never won that contest either.
The Titans earned a spot on the right side of the bracket with the way they responded when the Warriors drew close.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Thunder Ridge coach Jeremy Spencer said. “‘Take a deep breath. We’re good.’”
Thunder Ridge, which led by as many as 15 on the strength of an early 11-0 run, nearly fumbled things away.
Midway through the fourth, Meridian’s Maddie Wing watched her triple clang off the front rim, then bounce up and down through the net. The Titans’ lead was down to seven with a shade under four minutes left.
The teams traded baskets for the next couple minutes until Meridian guard Jaleesa Lawrence, who finished with 26 points, laid in a contested layup. The lead was back down to seven.
Then Caldwell took control — again. She knocked down two free throws, which pushed her team’s advantage back to nine. On the other end, she forced a five-second call, the Warriors’ only turnover of the fourth stanza. Then she caught a breakaway pass and laid in two points in transition.
For the Titans, those were the finishing touches. Thunder Ridge will play Coeur d’Alene at 4:30 p.m. in Friday’s semifinals.
“My dad always tells me to go up strong,” Caldwell said, “so that’s what I did.”
Thunder Ridge won because it authored a scintillating performance on offense. The Titans shot 52% from the field. They also got 13 points from Lauren Davenport, 11 from Kennedy Stenquist and five from forward Paige Clark, who used her six-foot frame to alter shots around the rim.
Thunder Ridge’s 66 points were the most Meridian yielded in a single game all season.
The Titans also connected on 5 of 12 shots from distance, an efficient 42%. That was important because the shots were timely. Stenquist hit from the corner in the third, good for a 16-point lead. Caldwell splashed one in the fourth, which pushed Thunder Ridge’s lead back to 10.
In some ways, Caldwell’s outing captured her team’s. She made wise reads: To shoot or to pass, to drive or to pull it out. The Titans are moving on because they rarely pushed the issue, rarely took bad shots.
“Probably one of the smartest basketball games that she’s played tonight,” Spencer said. “She understood when to attack the rim, she understood when to drive, she understood when to kick ... She just played smart basketball tonight.”
That was perhaps most evident in the first half.
Thunder Ridge controlled most everything early. The driving force was Caldwell. The sophomore, good for around seven or eight points per game, erupted for 14 in the first half alone.
For that reason, Thunder Ridge entered intermission with a 32-22 lead. One of the Titans’ best halves of basketball came on the grandest stage.
“When we play as a team, I feel like we can do great things,” Caldwell said. “So it didn’t surprise me. We were working so hard. It was really fun.”
These games tend to swing on the fringes. Meridian likely gameplanned for contributions from Clark and Davenport, the two stars, perhaps even from Sierra John and Halli Smith. It’s harder to protect against a sophomore guard hanging 26.
That depth, in part, is what got Thunder Ridge to this place. To get to the ultimate one, the Titans will need to beat Coeur d’Alene a second time this season.
The teams’ first meeting came on Dec. 29, a 69-63 Thunder Ridge win in overtime. That was the Vikings’ only loss all season.
Davenport led the scoring charge with 18 points, while Clark, Stenquist and Caldwell all logged 11 points. The Titans won the extra session 10-4.
Sophomore forward Madi Symons, daughter of head coach Nicole Symons, racked up 32 points for Coeur d'Alene. She’s one of the best players in the state. Thunder Ridge has not played anyone like her this season.
The good news for the Titans is they have another sophomore they like a lot.
“We have to watch film tonight,” Caldwell said. “But I’m excited. Should be fun.”
THUNDER RIDGE 66, MERIDIAN 55
Meridian 12 19 17 16 — 55
Thunder Ridge 16 16 15 19 — 66
MERIDIAN — Abby Kinnaman 2, Maddie Wing 6, Jaleesa Lawrence 26, Taylor Bonning 12, Lauren Danor 3.
THUNDER RIDGE — Aspen Caldwell 26, Kennedy Stenquist 11, Sierra John 6, Marley Spencer 5, Lauren Davenport 13, Paige Clark 5.