Everyone loves an underdog. Unless you are the Douglas Tigers girls basketball team and unless your opponent is the Carson Senators.
The Tigers walked out of Morse Burley Gym with a 47-45 victory over Carson, but not before surviving an electric 26-point first half from Senators sophomore guard Gina Bianchi, who had 29 overall.
"We just tried to lock up on her," Douglas coach Werner Christen said of his team's second-half strategy against the hot-handed Bianchi. "I give her credit; she played extremely well. I don't think I've seen a boy or girl who shot like her. We did a better job against her in the second half. It sort of woke us up a little bit."
With the win, Douglas stayed in a first-place tie with Reno at 4-0 in the Sierra League and moved to 14-6 overall. Carson fell to 1-3 in league and 4-15 overall.
The Tigers played a zone defense in the first half and couldn't shake the Senators, who trailed 9-3 with 4 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the first quarter, but behind a layup and two free throws from junior Cassie Vondrak and a layup, 3-pointer and another layup by Bianchi, took a 14-11 lead with 1:57 left in the quarter.
Danyelle Heidt had a pair of layups and Bridgett Maestretti added a 3-pointer to give Douglas an 18-17 lead going into the second quarter.
Maestretti ended up with seven points and Heidt with six, but the game hinged on the powerful post play of 6-foot junior center Jessica Waggoner, who scored a team-high 29 points and dominated on the boards and inside the paint.
Waggoner answered Bianchi's scorching first half with 22 points of her own, including all eight points in an 8-4 run that turned a 24-22 Carson advantage into a 30-26 Douglas lead with 3:02 left in the half.
Behind Bianchi, Carson finished the first half 13-of-22 from the floor. Douglas was 12-of-30 and the teams were locked 34-34 at the break.
"Wags had some points too," Christen said. "We did a good, good job of getting the ball inside."
Waggoner was a huge force inside, cleaning the glass, getting second- and third-chance opportunities and wrestling with up to three Carson players at once when Vondrak left the game with early foul trouble.
"She's a load," Carson coach Todd Ackerman said of Waggoner. "She's good. We did good when we ran a zone defense. That was one thing we didn't want to stay on too long. With their experience, they'd pick us off. (Waggoner) is a load to box out."
For her part, Waggoner said she was able to turn to her teammates for support.
"We have an all-around good team. When they doubled me inside, I'd throw it outside and we'd knock it down," she said. "It was a big team effort. It was a lot of fun. (The Senators) were trying to stay with me on the inside, but they couldn't. It was intense. They were throwing some elbows - it was fun. It's always a big rivalry."
When Christen switched defenses in the second half, Bianchi cooled off and the two teams scored only six points apiece in the third.
"We got rid of the zone and went straight man," Christen said. "We had to lock up 31 (Bianchi) - she had 26 at the half. She's a heck of a player. We had to guard her by committee.
"We've been working on fundamentals, trying to teach them to pass and catch. When you get down to it, it's a simple game."
The Tigers took a 40-34 lead when Waggoner scored over 5-foot-7 Carson guard Christy Works, but the Senators rallied behind a bucket by freshman Elayna Shine and a pair of free throws and a buzzer-beater by sophomore guard Yvonne Hollett, who scored all four of her points in the run.
Maestretti knocked down a free throw and a 3-pointer and Waggoner added a three-point play as Douglas took a 47-40 lead with 5:05 to play.
Carson and Bianchi weren't done, though. Bianchi sandwiched a putback and a free throw around a pair of Krista Mattice free throws to draw the Senators to within 47-45 with 1:03 to play.
"(Bianchi) shot the heck out of it," Ackerman said. "She had some looks and took some shots. She hit the first one and it gave her confidence and she kept going."
Neither Maestretti nor Carson's Tiandra Hudson were able to convert the front end of their one-and-ones and time ran out, much to the delight of Douglas and much to the displeasure of the upset-minded Senators.
Even though it was a loss, it was easily Carson's best effort of the season.
"Todd coached his ass off tonight," Christen said. "He changed up the defense and made things real difficult. He made us think instead of react. He's going to do some things here."
Ackerman, who was Christen's assistant at Douglas for three years and is in his first year as Carson's head coach, said it was one of those games where records didn't matter.
"Both teams came out and played hard," he said. "In the second half we got some rebounds and threw it away. It wasn't because of the pressure. We were rushed and we didn't need to be. Douglas does a good job -they keep coming and coming and coming. It took its toll a little bit."
That may be, but Ackerman said his team got a look at what it was capable of doing.
"They have to realize they can play at this level and they've got to stay at this level," Ackerman said. "I think a lot of it was their wondering, 'Can we play with them?' They proved they can. We've come a ways."