NAMPA — The first Thunder Ridge basketball team to earn a state tournament bid prepared for the championship game by dissecting game film over chicken fried steak.
The menu at the restaurant in Nampa, where the Titans will play Mountain View for the 5A state title at 7 p.m. today, also included pizza, burgers, calzones.
“Pretty much about everything,” head coach Jeremy Spencer said.
To Spencer, the food didn’t matter as much as what his players did while they chowed down. An hour after a semifinal win over Coeur d’Alene, the Titans used their phones to stream the other semifinal, Mountain View and Rigby. They’re rivals with the Trojans, so they knew them.
They were really paying attention to the defending champion Mavericks.
We’ve got to do this, they told each other. And we’ve got to do this.
“The girls felt incredibly good tonight,” Spencer said. “They were already coming up with their own gameplan.”
The story bears relaying because it captures the confidence the Titans have used to get to this place. They are a third-year program. They start two sophomore guards. None of it has seemed to matter, at least not yet, not on the doorstep of the program’s first state title game.
For Thunder Ridge, crossing the threshold into the promised land represents the most grueling challenge yet.
Mountain View, most importantly, is the defending 5A state champion. The Mavericks also employ a Hawaii commit, senior Trinity Slocum, and junior Naya Ojukwu, who has offers from across the country. They blend athleticism with talent in a cocktail that stumps most every opponent they face.
The Mavericks, who haven’t finished worse than third place at state since 2017, arrived here by routing Rigby Friday night. They haven’t lost since Jan. 30 in a defeat to Timberline, which Mountain View turned around and topped in Thursday’s tournament opener.
They aren’t bulletproof, but they sure come close.
“They are in your face, just really tough on defense,” Spencer said. “They will be all over you. They’ve got a couple D-I athletes that understand and play the game tough. Then they have some girls that are going to help them on a shooting perspective and make your life as tough as it can be to put the ball in the hole.”
Thunder Ridge feels confident it can counter. It comes from a genuine place. The Titans edged Meridian and defanged Coeur d’Alene because they are versatile and can win most any type of game, whether high-scoring or low-scoring, or when they’re hot or when they’re frigid.
The leadership has been critical in that department. Seniors Lauren Davenport and Paige Clark supply the scoring acumen and defensive bite, but more importantly, they provide experience. They were in the 5A District 5-6 title game each of the last two seasons. They’ve won games by all types of margins, including the narrow ones, where they encourage their younger teammates to breathe. To play.
They’ve gotten loads of practice lately. Thunder Ridge’s final two district wins came in close games against Madison. The Titans held a lead that hovered around 10 for both of those games, only for the Bobcats to come roaring back, forcing a tight game and — ordinarily — some nerves.
A week later, Thursday evening at the Idaho Center, Thunder Ridge experienced something much the same.
The Titans jumped out to an early lead over Meridian, opening an advantage as wide as 15. The Warriors rallied. They trimmed the lead to six on two occasions, including to seven with a shade under four minutes to play.
This is when the steady hands and reliable voices of Thunder Ridge’s seniors become most important.
“As a group, you talk to each other. You communicate,” Spencer said after his team’s win over Meridian. “Patience. Work the ball.’ It happens. I mean, they’re teenaged girls — ‘Coach, but I was wide open, right?’ So they’re going to jack a shot up.
“But then as you have that patience, and you regain your composure, ‘All right, we’re good now. Let’s just play ball again.’”
The Titans are composed. That much is clear. But they are also confident, especially considering the way they beat Coeur d’Alene.
Thunder Ridge won with its defense. The Vikings shot just 33% from the field, including a dismal 5-for-24 showing from 3-point distance, but what’s important is how Thunder Ridge defended star Madi Symons.
She produced just seven points. She didn’t register her first field goal until a minute had passed in the fourth. At that point, Couer d’Alene faced a 10-point deficit.
All of it was by design. The night before, Spencer stayed up until 3 a.m. studying the Vikings’ game film. He noticed that when Symons gets comfortable around the free throw line, in the mid-range area, her game really opens up. She can shoot, she can fake and drive, she can dish to shooters around here.
So Spencer deployed a zone defense that trapped Symons in that area of the court, showing her multiple bodies and forcing her to pass. Her teammates couldn’t knock down shots.
“We knew where she was the whole game,” Clark said. “The points she scored, we just tried to keep her so she didn’t get any wide-open shots. If she got the shots, they were heavily guarded.”
Now, Thunder Ridge’s task becomes finding a way to replicate that — only with multiple players of Symons’ caliber.
If the Titans can, they’ll land themselves in the place they’ve dreamed about for months.
“We’ve got some coaches with a lot of experience,” Clark added. “Like Keisha Fisher, she knows how to handle these kinds of tournaments. Our coaches are just really great people, and they know how to prepare for teams. It’s just meant a lot this state tournament, that we’re heavily prepared going into each game.”