NAMPA — The tears flooded as they posed for the picture they never wanted to take. Their coach made a speech and their supporters applauded, but the end had come for the Thunder Ridge girls, who exchanged hugs and wiped their faces under circumstances that signaled the conclusion of this wondrous journey.
There will likely come a day when the Titans reminisce and feel proud of their season, which ended in a 62-55 loss to Mountain View in Saturday’s 5A state championship game, but for now, the pain sunk deeper and deeper.
The end always hurts, but this one will stick with Thunder Ridge, which unraveled in the second half and watched a 16-point lead vanish into the air of the Idaho Center. Mountain View showed why it had come for a second straight state title.
“We just didn’t follow through with what we intended to do,” Thunder Ridge coach Jeremy Spencer said. “They kind of went and hit a couple shots, a couple turnovers, then a couple shots.”
The problem for the Titans was that the Mavericks hit more than a couple shots.
Mountain View trailed by 12 at halftime, its largest such deficit this season, only to come thundering back. Thunder Ridge sophomore Aspen Caldwell, who totaled 11 points, laid in her team’s final basket before the avalanche began.
Mountain View senior D’Nia Williams hit a 3-pointer, trimming the deficit to 10, which kickstarted a 16-0 Mavericks run. Naya Ojukwu tallied eight of her 32 points in the third. Mountain View cashed 4 of 8 long balls. The Mavericks were unconscious.
By the end of Mountain View’s scoring salvo, which ended when Caldwell finished at the rim, it had secured a 41-40 lead. The Mavericks added four points for good measure. They took a 45-40 lead into the final quarter.
These Titans won’t focus on the future until some time later, but when they feel comfortable doing so, they can harken back to the fourth quarter.
“We started to just play basketball again,” Spencer said.
The Titans began to claw back when their deficit swelled to 11, when Caldwell went to the free throw line and nailed 1 of 2 shots. Then, Lauren Davenport laid in two more points. Sierra John and Kennedy Stenquist followed with the shots of their lives, canning back-to-back triples, drawing back within 56-51.
The window was shuttering. The clock crept closer to two minutes. Somehow, after a deluge that threatened to puncture the balloon, Thunder Ridge had a chance.
The wind whistled out moments later. Paige Clark, who produced seven points, hit 1 of 2 free throws to cut the lead to 58-55 with 42 seconds left. But Ojukwu returned to the line for two more, and with the bucket that sealed the final margin, she broke the 5A state tournament scoring record with her 87th point of the weekend.
The record was emblematic of what Spencer said after the game, calling Ojukwu one of the best players he’s ever faced. There’s a reason why she has offers from all around the country.
“They’re well-coached,” Spencer said. “In terms of teams we’ve played, best teams we’ve played, they’re right in that top-tier group. They’ve shown it, and they’ve proven it over the last two back-to-back years.”
Now, Thunder Ridge must pick up the pieces from a season that they could not bring to the ultimate destination.
To do so, the Titans will need to reflect, to remember this dazzling season, the best in their program’s third year. There were the seven straight wins to open the season. The regular-season overtime win over Coeur d’Alene. And then beating the Vikings again in this state tournament.
Plus, Thunder Ridge secured the best finish by a District 6 team at the 5A girls state tournament in more than 30 years.
It never quite made sense to expect Thunder Ridge to make a state championship game appearance in its third year, but that’s where Spencer and the Titans’ genius came in. They fostered composure, developed talent, infused belief in the players that they could topple the best teams they played.
The belief never ran out. The ability did.
The memories, on the other hand, will never be in jeopardy.
“It’s going to be OK,” Clark said through tears. “The friendships we have are worth more than a state championship. I’m just super grateful to have everyone.”
MOUNTAIN VIEW 62, THUNDER RIDGE 55
Thunder Ridge 14 19 7 15 — 55
Mountain View 10 11 24 17 — 62
THUNDER RIDGE — Aspen Caldwell 11, Kennedy Stenquist 8, Sierra John 9, Marley Spencer 3, Trysta Hoffman 3, Lauren Davenport 12, Paige Clark 7, Halli Smith 2.
MOUNTAIN VIEW — Naya Ojukwu 32, D’Nia Williams 15, Trinity Slocum 11, Millie Bruner 4.