TACOMA — After graduating three all-conference starters from last season’s Class 4A state runner-up squad, Snohomish girls basketball coach Ken Roberts refused to let thoughts of a rebuilding year creep into his young team’s minds.
Reinforcing a winning mentality from the get-go, he made it clear that the state tournament was their goal.
Roberts’ youth-laden team bought in, and now the Panthers are only one victory away from a repeat title-game appearance.
No. 6-seed Snohomish limited No. 12-seed Seattle Prep to 11 first-half points and advanced to the 3A state semifinals with a 53-36 quarterfinal win Thursday afternoon in the Tacoma Dome.
The Panthers (19-6) will face No. 8-seed Mercer Island at 5:30 p.m. Friday for a spot in Saturday’s state-championship game.
“I’m coaching you guys like we’re going to state again,” Roberts, as he recalls, told his team during its first practice last summer. “It’s not going to be, ‘Oh, we lost all these kids. Let’s just go out and play.’ We’re going to have the same intensity, and we’ve got to figure out how we can get there as this group.”
Stifling defense has been Snohomish’s calling card all season, with the Panthers allowing just 38.2 points per game. And Snohomish compiled yet another lockdown performance Thursday.
Seattle Prep’s Chinwe Ezeonu and Bea Franklin combined for 47 points in Wednesday’s victory over Bellevue, but Snohomish held the Seattle Prep duo to just 10 total points. Ezeonu, a 6-foot senior post coming off a 24-point performance, was limited by Snohomish to one point in 28 minutes.
“We play different than last year’s team in some ways, but we’re always going to focus on defense and play defense first,” Roberts said. “And the kids have bought into that.
“I think with young kids, you get inconsistencies,” Roberts added. “And as long as we can limit those to offensive inconsistencies and play well on defense, we’re going to be OK.”
Roberts highlighted the individual defensive performances of senior Katie Brandvold and sophomore Emily Preach. He also praised the unit as a whole, particularly for its effort while mixing in a triangle-and-two defense that frustrated Seattle Prep.
“(They) flew around and did a good job,” Roberts said. “Our kids were really focused defensively on what we needed to do and we executed the game plan.”
Snohomish held Seattle Prep (21-8) more than 16 points below its season average. Seattle Prep managed only 22 points through the game’s first 27 minutes and finished 25.5 percent from the field, including 3 of 23 (13 percent) from beyond the arc.
Snohomish used strong play on both sides of the court to build a 15-3 lead by the end of the first quarter. Kyra Beckman, a 6-foot-1 sophomore forward, scored seven of her game-high 17 points in the opening period and finished the game with seven rebounds.
“She had a great game,” Roberts said. “She’s tough inside. She’s a tough matchup because she can step out and shoot 3s, she can attack and (she) changes the game for us defensively. She’s played great.”
Seattle Prep trimmed the deficit to six points in the second quarter, but Snohomish held Seattle Prep scoreless for the final four minutes of the half during a 13-0 run that ballooned the margin to 30-11. Snohomish stretched its lead to 46-22 early in the fourth quarter.
Snohomish sophomore Maya Duchesne finished with 11 points and five assists, Brandvold scored 11 points and 6-foot sophomore Courtney Perry added eight points. Four sophomores combined for 39 of Snohomish’s 53 points.
“We always talk about having confidence in ourselves, because we know we can do it,” Beckman said of the team’s success in spite of its youth. “It’s just being able to have the confidence, and coming back (to state) and showing what Snohomish can do.”