TULARE — Kate McClard was calm, cool and collected down the stretch and knocked down crucial free throws to help Hanford punch its ticket to the 9th Annual Tulare Mid-Winter Showcase Invitational championship game.
The Bullpups 60-54 semifinal victory over Legacy will have them face Bakersfield (9-1) today at 4:15 p.m. at Mission Oak High School. Bakersfield defeated Mission Oak 63-45 in their semifinal game to earn its spot in the finale.
With under two minutes to go, Legacy had cut a 17-point lead to single digits for the first time since there was 5:29 left in the third quarter.
Legacy star player Arianna Harper, who finished with a team-high 23 points, drew a charge and then finished with a layup on the other end to cut the lead to seven with under a minute to go.
But Hanford has its own star player in McClard and she responded as she always does when her team needs her. She hit a running layup and then a couple of free throws after being intentionally fouled.
The Tigers hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to five and fouled McClard again with 27.2 seconds to go. The pressure didn’t faze her as she knocked down another pair to ice the game.
“My dad always gets mad at me when I miss so I thought, ‘I don’t want to hear it after the game,’” a smiling McClard said.
McClard finished with a game- and season-high 29 points, while going a perfect 8-for-8 at the charity stripe in the fourth quarter. She also scored 10 of the team’s 12 points in the fourth and finished 14-of-16 from the free throw line overall with all of her attempts coming in the second half.
“We showed a little more composure at the very end,” Hanford coach Doug Pitkin said. “We got a little bit anxious to get rid of the ball … we were trying to win the game on one possession with two minutes to go.”
McClard’s previous season-high came Dec. 13 when she scored 22 points against Yosemite in a 71-43 loss. Her 14 free throws made and 16 attempts were also both season-highs.
As a team, Hanford was outscored 21-11 in the final quarter because of sloppy turnovers, failing to recognize certain situations and some blown layups. But in the end, they had just enough.
“These kinds of games are the best things for us,” Pitkin said. “Every league game we have [opponents are] going to throw everything they have at us. We have to be able to trust our experience and our athleticism and make good decisions.”
Hanford (9-7, 1-0 WYL) got off to a sound start with Sapphire Jones’ cut to the hoop for an easy deuce and McClard hitting on a turnaround jumper.
Legacy (3-6, 1-0 SGL) was unfazed as they went to Harper and had her settle the offense. It was a back-and-forth affair in the opening quarter with Legacy taking a 9-8 lead before Pitkin called a timeout to get his team refocused.
Hanford came out and made some baskets on set pieces and led 15-14 after the first quarter. That offense carried over into the second quarter when they started on a 6-0 run, which forced Legacy coach Ronald Estrada to call a timeout.
Legacy responded after the timeout, but Hanford created some space toward the end of the half for a 28-24 lead heading into the half.
The third quarter belonged to Hanford as they outscored the Tigers 20-9 and ran their offense at will. It started with back-to-back shots in the paint by Jill Shipp.
Jones, who finished with 10 points, then went to the line to split a pair followed by McClard hitting four free throws in a row. The 8-0 run gave Hanford a 12-point lead. Legacy started to get to the line, but Hanford continued to pull away.
McClard ended the third in grand fashion when she inbounded the ball, got it back and drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bullpups their biggest lead of the game at that point.
“Offensively, we shared the ball, we moved the ball," Pitkin said. "They were in a zone so we found that little pocket by the free throw line … it opened everything else up.”
Hanford will look to continue to run down the court, put a body on opponents for rebounds and finishing at the rim in today’s championship game. In an earlier matchup this season, Bakersfield dominated Hanford and walked away with a 58-40 victory. Their size and athleticism are going to be two big factors in determining the outcome.
“We want another opportunity to play Bakersfield because we didn’t show very well,” Pitkin said. “We’re going to have to do a much better job rebounding the basketball and a much better job sharing the basketball.”