By David Bashore
Herald sports editor
Bend Hermiston's girls basketball squad left nothing to chance for their final regular season game, sweeping two games in Central Oregon to successfully defend the team's Intermountain Conference championship.
The wins came at the expense of Mountain View and Bend; both teams were trying to chase the Lady Bulldogs (16-8, 12-1 IMC) down and take the conference crown for themselves.
Friday night saw a lightning-quick start from Hermiston as they cruised to a 72-55 victory, clinching the title with two games to spare.
Sarau Morrison scored three successive layups almost immediately after the onset after a tenacious pressure defense forced Mountain View turnovers.
Hermiston scored its first 11 points in transition, and never looked back en route to victory.
The win was headlined by 24 points, eight assists and eight steals from freshman Shoni Schimmel, the ostensible runaway favorite for IMC player of the year honors.
Schimmel dropped four three pointers in quick succession to help put the game to bed, and the celebration was on.
For Royer and the Bulldog ladies, it is the eighth conference championship in the past 12 seasons, further cementing Hermiston's place as the chief force in IMC girls basketball.
Saturday brought a new challenge to the table, in that Hermiston faced Bend the only team to top the Lady Bulldogs in IMC play this season on the heels of clinching the conference.
In the first quarter, it appeared that Bend was going to have the upper hand as they grabbed a 23-10 lead after one.
Hot outside shooting from the Lava Bears forced Hermiston to pull out of the soft zone they wanted to employ as often as possible, but it actually worked out for the better.
After Bend scored to open the second period with a 25-10 margin, Hermiston slowly began to close the gap on the Lava Bears, outscoring them 65-35 the rest of the way for a 75-60 win.
Morrison dropped five treys and finished with 22 points in the win, which was Hermiston's 10th in a row the ninth straight by at least 15 points and the 14th out of the last 15 games.
Despite the massive win stretch, and the likelihood that this long string of success will end at some point, Royer and company seem in no mood to see it come to a close.
"We've talked to the girls about how we want to get to 20 wins on the year," Royer said. "We know if we do that, we'll be bringing home a trophy."
A top-four trophy would be the first for a Hermiston boys or girls basketball team, and would appear to be a tall order given the likely road the Lady Bulldogs will face.
Hermiston will host a second-round playoff game on Saturday, March 3, against a foe yet to be determined.
The winner of a first-round game, to be held Feb. 28, pitting third-placed teams from the Mid-Willamette and Midwestern Conferences against each other will travel to Hermiston for the second round game.
Teams in contention from the Midwestern Conference are Churchill and Marshfield, while Silverton a team Hermiston beat in the playoffs last year and West Albany, who topped the Lady Bulldogs 54-40 earlier this season, are the contenders in the Mid-Willamette Conference.
Silverton and West Albany face each other tonight, as do Churchill and Marshfield, and those results will likely cement the first round matchup all Hermiston fans will keep an eye on.
After that, should the Lady Bulldogs survive, a likely quarterfinal matchup with top-ranked Jefferson a 21-1 team that's beaten Hermiston twice this year already looms.
For Hermiston, however, they have a date tonight with Pendleton before they can devote their full attention to the playoffs.
Despite having little to play for against the Lady Buckaroos, there's always the incentive of beating their rivals.
"This is still a big game to the girls," Royer said. "They want to play well against Pendleton. And to Pendleton, this game is everything (to their slim playoff chances)."
David Bashore can be reached at dbashore@ hermistonherald.com.