HANFORD — With Murphy’s law employed to its full effect in the first quarter, things were not looking good for the Bullpups on Wednesday.

Hanford star Kate McClard picked up three fouls in just over seven minutes, open shots were clanking off the rim — or missing it entirely — and the team trailed at halftime for the first time in weeks.

But the 6-seeded Bullpups would not be denied on their home court as they used a strong second half to propel themselves to the next round with a 52-44 victory over Clovis East in the CIF Central Section Division I opening round.

“Having a close game like this made us play harder, play faster and I think we executed very well,” Hanford guard Kylie Maya said. “[This close game] is getting us more experience to play the bigger and better teams and hopefully we get to Selland Arena.”

Hanford guard Sapphire Jones scored a game-high 18 points, Kate McClard added 12 points and Tinisha Edwards had nine points.

Down 29-22 at halftime to the 11-seed, Hanford coach Doug Pitkin told the girls that they needed to get stops. His wings were playing high, so he had them gap down on defense and put pressure on Clovis East’s shooters to make the post entry pass difficult.

McClard also moved to the top of the zone and the strategy paid dividends. She directed the defense and was able to create problems with her long wingspan.

“I’ve never played up their before that’s my first time,” McClard said. “I don’t think they could see past me that’s why they couldn’t get it in because I’m so long.”

The Bullpups (22-7, 12-0 WYL) opened the third quarter with a 9-2 run to knot the game at 31-all and took the lead on Tinisha Edwards’ layup — after she hit a 3-pointer — with just over three minutes to go. Edwards’ nine points all came in the second half.

It was Hanford’s first lead of the game since they led 7-6 in the first quarter and they led 37-36 at the end of the third.

The fourth quarter belonged to Hanford’s defense. They held the Timberwolves (11-18, 0-10 TRAC) to eight points — two field goals — with four of those points coming in the final minute off of free throws.

“We dropped the wings. We no longer played the flat line up top,” Hanford coach Doug Pitkin said. “We just got smart. We knew where the shooters were, we called them out and we rotated rather than just playing flat and staring at the ball.”

It was Jones getting the quarter started with a couple of free throws and a layup. Edwards followed by scoring back-to-back layups and McClard hit a shot from 15 feet out to put the team up eight with 2:13 to go and really seal the deal since the Timberwolves could not find a basket.

“It just shows our girls that we can play small on the backline, we can mismatch and we can play competitively,” Pitkin said about the team’s ability to win tight games. “Defensively, we got stops and rebounds when we needed them.”

It was a stunning turnaround for a team that looked lost in the first couple minutes. The Bullpups took a quick 7-2 lead before the Timberwolves came back with an 11-0 run and ended the first leading 17-10.

Hanford couldn’t put the ball in the ocean at first. There were a couple air balls and poor execution on rotations, which allowed Clovis East to get inside, especially 6-foot-1-inch center Saleena Miranda.

“We’ve never been given so many open three shots before in my five years here and we just couldn’t knock them down,” Pitkin said.

The defense from some of the younger players in Alyssa Chapman, Maya and Edwards really held down the fort, while McClard sat all of the second quarter, except the final possession.

“That was something wasn’t it,” Pitkin said. “I was telling the freshman, ‘You don’t have any more time to grow up. This is it. We’re one-and-done.’”

With the defense keeping them within striking distance, Jones went to work and slashed to the cup, piling up 12 points at halftime. Hanford was close at halftime and that was all they needed in the end.

“I think Sapphire saved us on that one,” McClard said. “She put up numbers and that really helped.”

Up next:

The Bullpups will travel to Bakersfield to face the No. 3 seed Independence (20-5, 9-1 SYL) today at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals. The Falcons finished as the South Yosemite League champions and had a bye in the first round.

Hanford faced the Falcons earlier this year in the Redwood tournament and lost 60-35, so everyone is hoping for a much better outcome this time around.

“We’ve been waiting for this rematch with them for a long time,” Pitkin said.

Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.