CLEARMONT — The very first day of practice, the Arvada-Clearmont girls basketball team set its goals. McKenna Auzqui didn’t write her’s down and she didn’t say much. Auzqui simply pointed up at the wall inside the AC High School gymnasium.
“I want a banner on the wall,” she said.
Friday afternoon, Auzqui and the Lady Panthers realized that goal.
AC held on for a 48-46 win over Hulett to claim its first conference championship since 2007-08.
“We are changing the culture at Clearmont,” AC head coach Sarah Walker said. “The girls are embracing every challenge we throw at them and they’re accepting this newfound fame and success. Having interviews and being in the newspaper and teams talking about them and being the kind a team other teams try to shut down.”
The Lady Panthers owned a seven-point lead with 2:30 to play in the game after a bucket from Kerri Malli. A Taylor Kennah 3-pointer cut the Lady Devils’ deficit to two at 42-40 with 1:55 left, and she hit another trey with just under three seconds to play that trimmed it to one at 47-46.
But AC’s Ashlynn Fennema made five of her final six free throws, splitting a pair with 2.6 seconds left, and Hulett didn’t get a shot off before the final buzzer sounded.
Fennema finished with a game-high 17 points, but following the contest she had her sights set on something more.
“It feels good to win the conference because this hasn’t happened in a while,” she said. “Hopefully, we end up 6-0.”
All of Fennema’s teammates embodied that same mentality. No one over-celebrated as all the Lady Panthers lined up after the final horn Friday to shake hands with the Lady Red Devils. The ladders stayed stored away, nets weren’t cut and locker room celebrations for the Lady Panthers remained tame.
The conference championship, 10 years in the making, needs enhancing for AC.
“We’ve talked what a conference championship would look like and for us a conference championship is finishing the seasons 6-0,” Walker said. “A 5-1 conference championship is not what we are working for. For us, Midwest tomorrow is a challenge. We want to come back into our gym, one last time — one more time for our seniors to step onto the court — and for these younger girls to kind of embrace the moment.
“We’ve told them, it’s OK to feel like we’ve earned this position to have chance to be 6-0.”
The 6-0 record wouldn’t be a possibility without a couple hard-fought victories over Hulett. In the two teams’ first meeting, AC needed a furious second-half rally to topple the Lady Red Devils on the road, and Friday evening in Clearmont, the Lady Panthers needed one simple mindset: a self-confidence in oneself and one another instilled in the the last few days.
“This whole week we worked on, ‘I am,’ statements,” Fenemma said. “Being confident in each other. I think we came out confident, and our goal was to start confident in the first and second quarter and we achieved that goal, and that brought us momentum to keep playing. [Hulett] came back, but we were confident and that made the difference.”
AC jumped out quickly and used an 8-0 run to take a 14-7 at the end of the first quarter. The Lady Panthers ballooned their cushion to double digits at 18-7 with 5:48 to play in the first half. But Hulett fought back. The Lady Red Devils utilized an 8-0 spurt of their own to pull within four at 22-18.
Hulett pulled even at 27 before AC vaulted ahead 31-29 ahead of the game’s final eight minutes.
The Lady Panthers host Midwest in their regular-season finale Saturday at 2 p.m.
Hulett……………………………………………..7 11 11 17 — 46
Arvada-Clermont……………………………….14 8 9 17 — 48
Hulett — McNamee 24, Kennah 8, Bauman 6, Jay 4, Rogers 2, Haaber 2
Arvada-Clermont — Fennema 17, Klaahsen 8, Kr. Malli 7, Auzqui 6, Ke. Malli 6, Adamson 4