Years of work pay off this week as the high school girls basketball state tournament tips off Thursday around the Treasure Valley, with championships coming Saturday at the Ford Idaho Center.
The 5A tournament features two of the best teams in the West, not just Idaho. Perennial 4A powers Bishop Kelly and Middleton appear destined for another rematch in the state finals. And undefeated Melba is seeking to end East Idaho’s dominance in 2A.
We break down the top players to watch this weekend and the race for a title in each classification.
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PLAYERS TO WATCH
Melody Kempton, Post Falls
The 6-foot senior forward leads the Trojans on both ends of the court with 15.9 points, 8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. The Gonzaga signee is Post Falls’ career leader in all three categories.
Katelyn Murray, Eagle
The 6-foot senior forward and Army signee headlines a loaded, balanced and undefeated squad with 13 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Lydia Nieto, Bishop Kelly
The defending 4A All-Idaho Player of the Year can take over a game in a heartbeat with her long-range shooting and her slicing drives.
Grace Kirscher, Sandpoint
The 6-1 senior forward earned first-team 4A All-Idaho honors last year, averages 19.5 points per game and has signed with Eastern Washington.
Madison Jackson, Parma
The junior point guard has offers from Montana, Montana State and Weber State. She’s averaging 19.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.5 steals per game.
Kori Pentzer, Melba
The Weber State signee and reigning 2A All-Idaho Player of the Year led the Mustangs to an undefeated season while averaging 19.9 points, 4.8 steals, 2.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game.
EAGLE: The undefeated Mustangs (24-0) have carried the heavy favorite status all season, finishing the year as the state’s wire-to-wire No. 1 team. They’ve started to draw national attention as well, earning the No. 25 spot in the latest USA Today Super 25 rankings.
With four starters and eight players back from last season’s state runner-up, the Mustangs have steamrolled opponents, with an average margin of victory of 25 points. Only five of Eagle’s games have been decided by single digits. The closest was six points (Borah, Kuna and Bishop Kelly).
Eagle will run a 10-deep rotation and has three players with a Division I future. Murray has signed with Army, guard Janie King has signed with Idaho and junior point guard Meghan Boyd has offers from Idaho, Utah Valley and Denver.
POST FALLS: If not for Eagle’s undefeated season, Post Falls would be grabbing all the headlines.
The Trojans (21-2) went 3-1 in December at the Tarkanian Classic, one of the top tournaments in the country. And their only losses came on the road against Nevada’s Liberty (28-2) and Washington state’s No. 1-ranked team, Central Valley (22-0).
Gonzaga signee Melody Kempton (15.9 ppg, 8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks) draws the most attention from opponents. But Bayley Brennan (14.3 ppg), a Seattle Pacific signee, and Tyler McCliment-Call (12.9 ppg, 5.4 assists) keep teams from drawing up exotic defenses to slow her.
THE DARK HORSE
BONNEVILLE: East Idaho teams are a combined 40-82 at the 5A state tournament and have won just 10 of the 88 state trophies since 1995, the last time one of its teams (Pocatello) reached the state finals.
But Bonneville (22-1) proved it belongs with Idaho’s powerhouses with a 2-1 performance at the TimberLion Tournament over the holidays, including a 10-point win over first-round opponent Mountain View.
The Bees are still young, but they also field 5A’s stingiest defense at 33.3 points per game allowed.
BISHOP KELLY: The Knights (19-5) have reached the state championship game two years in a row, only to fall short. This could be the year they break through.
Bishop Kelly and Middleton have battled all year for the favorite status, but BK landed the latest blow with a 15-point victory in the district final to stretch its winning streak to nine games. When defending 4A All-Idaho Player of the Year Lydia Nieto is hot and forwards Theresa Reeping and Gabby Keefe are slugging it out in the post, few teams can keep up with the Knights offensively.
MIDDLETON: No. 1-ranked Middleton (18-6) stumbled down the stretch, going 3-3 in its last six games. The defending state champ played four of those games without Meriah Deugan, its second-leading scorer and its top defender, as she recovered from a concussion.
Her status for state remains up in the air, but the Vikings still feature one of the most disciplined and best rebounding teams in the state. And head coach Andy Jones already has six titles to his name, the second most in IHSAA girls basketball history.
THE DARK HORSE
SANDPOINT: The Bulldogs (14-8) started 1-4 as they battled injuries before closing the year winning eight of 10. Senior forward and Eastern Washington signee Grace Kirscher remains one of the toughest matchups in the state. Her length (6-1) and smooth shot create mismatches both inside and outside the paint.
SUGAR-SALEM: The Diggers (22-2) graduated only two players from their state runner-up team last season and have dominated opponents on their 19-game winning streak, winning those games by an average of 27.9 points. A win over Bishop Kelly is also included in that streak.
TIMBERLAKE: No 3A state title is won without input from the Tigers (18-3), the two-time defending state champ who has played in six of the past seven title games.
Graduation robbed Timberlake of its star power, but six players are averaging between seven and 11.5 points per game. The Tigers’ only losses came to 5A Lewiston and Washington’s East Valley (19-1) and Cashmere (20-1).
THE DARK HORSE
PARMA: The Panthers (20-3) enter on a 15-game winning streak and have one of the state’s top players. They’ve flown under the radar, and no team from the 3A Snake River Valley has reached the state finals since 1999.
MELBA: East Idaho has dominated 2A girls basketball in recent years, taking every state championship game spot for five years running. And no 2A Western Idaho Conference team has won a state title since 2003.
Melba (22-0) looks to end both of those streaks. The Mustangs have won 24 straight games dating back to last year’s consolation title, and they are beating teams by an average of 33.2 points this season. Only one of their 22 games was decided by single digits.
SODA SPRINGS: East Idaho’s top power has won 23 straight games since losing its season opener to Sugar-Salem, 3A’s No. 1-ranked team. The Cardinals (23-1) avenged that loss a week later and are quickly becoming familiar with the Idaho Center, reaching the state finals four times in the past eight years.
THE DARK HORSE
RIRIE: The defending state champ started over after losing seven seniors, and the Bulldogs (20-4) don’t have any seniors on this year’s roster. But a bevy of long-range shooters and sophomore post Indee Williams (15.1 ppg) make Ririe a threat.
CLASS 1A DIVISION I
PRAIRIE: Flip a coin between the Pirates (22-2) and longtime rivals Lapwai (18-4). The North Idaho powerhouses have met in the state championship game each of the past four years, with Lapwai winning three in a row now and winning this year’s district title. But Prairie swept a pair of regular-season meetings with 16-point and seven-point victories.
LAPWAI: A young Wildcat team has grown up on the fly, and its trademark pressure defense forced 26 turnovers on its way to a 57-55 overtime upset of Prairie for the district title.
CLASS 1A DIVISION II
BUTTE COUNTY: The Pirates (20-3) bring back seven seniors from last year’s state championship team, including first-team All-Idaho selection Shay Lambson and second-team picks Meg Buxton and Sherawn Brownlee.
NEZPERCE: The Indians (19-3) feature a host of outside shooters and thrive at a high pace, much like Butte County.
BK’s Russell name Idaho’s top runner
Bishop Kelly junior Nicholas Russell was named the 2017-18 Gatorade Idaho Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year this week, becoming the first boy from BK to win the award.
Russell won the 4A state meet last fall for the second straight year in 15 minutes, 37.65 seconds, the fastest time in any classification.