NAMPA — Jeremy Spencer stared straight ahead, past the black gate guarding the empty court at the Idaho Center and into the maroon seats on the other end of the venue. A few scattered conversations filled the oval stadium, which was silent otherwise. Thunder Ridge’s head coach was racking his brain for someone’s name.
His Titans were set to face Coeur d’Alene in Friday’s 5A state semifinals. The Vikings employed someone, a star, a top-20 player in Idaho, the daughter of head coach Nicole Symons.
In the moment Thursday night, the name escaped Spencer. He flashed a smile. He should have known the name.
“She’s a good player,” he said, vowing to watch film that night on the powerhouse Vikings.
Moments after blanking on the name, Spencer hopped on the bus, studied game tape and became a cinephile on Madi Symons and Coeur d’Alene, which explains why Thunder Ridge secured a 53-39 win and advanced to Saturday’s 5A state championship game.
The Titans will play an opponent to be determined at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Spencer has earned a reputation for staying up late to study opponents, but this challenge was daunting. He had some six hours to study film on Coeur d’Alene. The Titans handed the Vikings their only regular-season loss back in December, but Symons racked up 32 points in that contest. Spencer knew something had to change.
He decided to play a zone defense, showing Symons and the Vikings multiple defenders no matter where they caught the ball. Couer d’Alene’s 39 points are its fewest this season. Symons’ seven points, all of which came in the fourth quarter, are her fewest as well. Her team shot just 33% from the field.
Thunder Ridge turned in a masterpiece of a defensive outing when it had to.
“We played really well as a team against her. It wasn’t just one person shutting her down,” said Thunder Ridge forward Paige Clark, who scored nine points. “We always knew where she was. Everyone was like, ‘She’s down low. She’s out corner.’ We just knew where she was the whole game.”
Thunder Ridge also won because it feels comfortable winning any type of game: High-scoring or low-scoring, transition or half-court, triples or twos. That versatility is paramount to state tournament winners. The Titans can count themselves as one for another day because their players are so multi-faceted, so skilled in too many areas.
On Friday, they proved it by finding baskets that prevented Coeur d’Alene from getting back into the game. Aspen Caldwell, who totaled 11 points, posted four fourth-quarter points. Sierra John, who kickstarted her team’s early rally by pickpocketing Vikings and turning them into baskets, led the Titans with 12 points, hitting 5 of 6 free throws in the fourth. Lauren Davenport hit two crucial baskets in the fourth for 11 points.
The Titans are deep, which is never more important than this time of year. Even Kennedy Stenquist, who posted just four points, scored two of them in the fourth on an and-one. She slalomed into the lane, slithered around a defender and laid in a scoop layup. The Titans took a 13-point lead with three minutes to play.
That basket was difficult, but the Titans made good on similar opportunities all night. They shot a sharp 43% from the field. They also made 5 of 14 shots from distance. One came from John, who answered Symons’ first bucket of the game — at the 6:55 mark of the fourth stanza — with a bomb that ballooned the Titans’ lead back to 13.
A bench full of players Spencer feels comfortable playing in crunch time leapt out of their chairs in a frenzied celebration.
“At the end of the day,” Spencer said, “these are the games that make us better.”
The intriguing part is that an hour earlier, it seemed like the Titans were going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Early on, Thunder Ridge turned a disastrous start into a resurgent effort. Coeur d’Alene scored the first six points of the game, but the Titans responded with 13 straight. John snared two steals and converted each into layups. She might have been her team’s most important piece of the first frame.
Thunder Ridge could not sustain the run, at least not entirely. Coeur d’Alene started funneling more action through Symons. It worked beautifully. The Titans overcommitted, and Symons found teammates for layups at the rim. The Vikings went frigid from distance. It didn’t have to matter.
Thunder Ridge entered halftime with an 18-13 lead, but Coeur d’Alene entered with the momentum.
In just their third year as a program, the Titans are moving on because their players have the mettle for those kinds of moments.
Central to Spencer and the Titans’ success doing so has been fostering that kind of composure. The team’s first season, Spencer likes to say, was about getting experience. The talent was there. The cohesion was not.
The following season, the Titans failed to make the state tournament, but they did crack the 5A District 5-6 tournament game. Spencer and his assistants knew they had something. They just needed more time.
Now, they’ve gotten it. It’s blossoming into a state tournament run, players young and old grabbing key rebounds and scoring crucial points and locking up the best teams in Idaho. The Titans are one game away from earning what they came for. Their opponent will be Rigby or Mountain View.
Rest assured, Spencer may be studying film on both teams until the wee hours of gameday.
“Every time at practice, he has this notepad of like 100 things,” Clark said with a smile. “He’ll be like, ‘I was up till like 3 a.m.’ He’ll read it off to us, and we’ll go over it in our huddles. We’re all really grateful for the fact that he works so hard.”
THUNDER RIDGE 53, COEUR D’ALENE 39
Thunder Ridge 7 11 16 19 — 53
Coeur d’Alene 6 7 9 17 — 39
COEUR D’ALENE — Jaelyn Brainard-Adams 10, Madi Symons 7, Tori Younker 6, Jaden Chavez 2, Skylar Burke 14.
THUNDER RIDGE — Aspen Caldwell 11, Kennedy Stenquist 4, Sierra John 12, Marley Spencer 3, Lauren Davenport 11, Paige Clark 9, Halli Smith 3.