Meadowdale’s Taylor Kesselring (left) makes a pass with Fatoumata Jaiteh (right) and Alicia Morrison (back) defending during Thursday’s practice. As the No. 8 seed in their district tournament, the underdog Mavericks made a Cinderella run to their first state berth since 2009. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Meadowdale’s Taylor Kesselring (left) makes a pass with Fatoumata Jaiteh (right) and Alicia Morrison (back) defending during Thursday’s practice. As the No. 8 seed in their district tournament, the underdog Mavericks made a Cinderella run to their first state berth since 2009. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Cinderella Mavs: Meadowdale girls embrace the underdog role

After an improbable district run, the Mavericks are set for their first state appearance since 2009.

The Meadowdale girls basketball team faced a seemingly daunting task.

Just past the midway point of the third quarter in last Saturday’s Class 3A Northwest District Tournament elimination game, the underdog Mavericks trailed No. 2 seed Shorecrest 26-17. And given the low-scoring nature of the contest, the nine-point deficit felt even larger.

It seemed like the Scots were ready to pull away and punch their ticket to the state regionals.

The Cinderella Mavs had other plans.

With a stifling defensive performance and a 3-pointer that will go down in Meadowdale girls basketball lore, the eighth-seeded Mavericks capped their improbable run to the state regionals with a shocking 30-28 upset of Shorecrest.

“It’s still crazy,” Meadowdale junior Alicia Morrison said after Tuesday’s practice. “Every time I go to practice, I think, ‘Wow, we’re going to state.’”

“It’s a little surreal, honestly,” added first-year Mavericks head coach Arie Mahler, who was the program’s junior-varsity coach and a varsity assistant for the previous two seasons.

Meadowdale made 14 consecutive state appearances from 1996 to 2009, winning a pair of state titles in 2000 and 2004. But after that lengthy run, the Mavericks went an entire decade without reaching state, including a string of five consecutive losing seasons from 2014 to 2018.

With its recent Cinderella ride, Meadowdale ended the 10-year state drought.

The Mavericks (15-8) face West Seattle (17-5) in a loser-out 3A state regional game Friday night at Garfield High School in Seattle, with the winner advancing to the Tacoma Dome for next week’s Hardwood Classic.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” Meadowdale junior Lilly Williams said. “We definitely peaked at the right time.”

Meadowdale’s Soriah Swinton calls a play during Thursday’s practice. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Meadowdale’s Soriah Swinton calls a play during Thursday’s practice. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Mavericks began their district tournament run with a 77-54 victory over ninth-seeded Lynnwood in a Feb. 7 loser-out play-in game. Then after a week-long layoff because of the recent snowstorm, Meadowdale returned to action with a 62-49 loss to top-seeded Arlington in a Feb. 14 district quarterfinal.

The loss dropped the Mavericks to the loser’s bracket, meaning Meadowdale needed to win two consecutive elimination games to reach state.

First up was a rematch against fourth-seeded Marysville Getchell, which topped the Mavericks by two points in the teams’ regular-season meeting.

In last Friday’s loser-out contest, Meadowdale faced a five-point halftime deficit before employing a full-court press in the second half. The Mavericks outscored Marysville Getchell 18-4 in the third quarter and went on to win, keeping their season alive with a 55-43 victory.

“We just came out in the third quarter with a lot of intensity and just pushed, knowing that (it) possibly could be (our) last 16 minutes on the court together,” Williams said.

The Mavericks then had another revenge opportunity in Saturday’s winner-to-state game against Shorecrest, which beat Meadowdale 57-38 last month.

The rematch was a particularly low-scoring affair, with both teams battling fatigue and poor shooting. Meadowdale was playing its third postseason game in as many days, and Shorecrest was playing its third in four days.

But the Scots’ lack of scoring also was a product of the Mavericks’ stingy defense. Meadowdale used its 2-3 zone to stymie Shorecrest, holding the Scots more than 26 points below their season scoring average.

“It’s kind of been our meal ticket,” Mahler said of his team’s recent stretch of strong defense.

“You may have a team that is taller, faster and more experienced,” he added, “… but I think what (our players) understand is defense is the great equalizer. So if we just go out there with a mindset of, ‘I’m going to play defense and then I’ll let everything else fall into place,’ that’s kind of been their recipe for success.”

That certainly was the case during Meadowdale’s comeback against Shorecrest.

After the Mavericks went ice-cold offensively and fell into a nine-point hole midway through the third quarter, it was their defense that allowed them to slowly climb back. Over the game’s final 11 1/2 minutes, Meadowdale yielded just two points to the second-highest scoring team in Wesco 3A/2A.

“In the third and fourth quarter when we had to just buckle down, I’ve never seen our girls play (the 2-3 zone) before with (that) intensity and focus and sharpness,” Mahler said. “We were in a 2-3 zone, but it looked like a man. That’s how well they played it.

“The girls embraced what they had to do — get stops and then the buckets will come.”

Meadowdale’s Fatoumata Jaiteh (right) works the post with Maia Austvold defending during Thursday’s practice. Jaiteh banked in a late go-ahead 3-pointer in the Mavericks’ state-clinching victory over Shorecrest last Saturday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Meadowdale’s Fatoumata Jaiteh (right) works the post with Maia Austvold defending during Thursday’s practice. Jaiteh banked in a late go-ahead 3-pointer in the Mavericks’ state-clinching victory over Shorecrest last Saturday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Trailing 28-26 with two minutes to play, the Mavericks took the lead on an improbable shot.

Earlier in the game, Shorecrest had banked in a 3-pointer. This time, it was Meadowdale’s turn to receive an assist from the glass.

Morrison drove toward the paint and kicked the ball out to the perimeter, where an open Fatoumata Jaiteh was waiting just beyond the college 3-point line. The 6-foot sophomore post briefly hesitated, then launched a deep 3-pointer that banked in off the backboard to give the Mavericks a one-point lead, eliciting quite the celebration among her teammates and coaches.

“The bench went nuts,” Mahler said. “My coaches jumped up (and) I even had to get them back on the bench, because I knew the game wasn’t over.”

Nursing a slim lead, the Mavericks’ defense held strong for the game’s final two minutes, shutting out Shorecrest on its final five possessions.

As the Scots’ desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the backboard and fell harmlessly to the floor, Meadowdale’s players and coaches began a euphoric celebration that lasted well after they left the court.

“We went into the locker room, (and) everyone’s screaming and jumping around,” Jaiteh said. “… It was like that for like 10 minutes or more. It was crazy.”

Making the Mavericks’ run to state even more impressive is the fact it came after a nearly week-long hiatus.

After their Feb. 7 play-in game, the snowstorm kept the Mavericks from practicing again until Feb. 13. The very next night, Meadowdale began its string of three postseason games in three days.

“That was really tiring, especially because we had all that time off because of the snow,” Morrison said. “After all those games, I was so sore. … We just wanted to win, so I think our adrenaline is what kept us all going.”

As the lowest seed in the 16-team 3A state field, the No. 16 Mavericks once again will be the underdog in Friday’s state regional against No. 9 West Seattle.

It’s a role the team has fully embraced.

“Their confidence is sky-high,” Mahler said. “They’re playing loose, because we’re the underdog and no one’s expecting us. That’s kind of a nice feeling, honestly. The pressure is on our opponents.”

“We don’t have anything to lose,” Williams added, “so we’ve just gotta go in with our all.”

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