Astoria girls basketball team

The Astoria girls basketball team following their Dulcich Tournament win over Heritage.

Defense wins championships.

And the Astoria girls basketball team won a big title Saturday night. And unless there’s a major upset along the way … or if there’s a team that knows how to break a press defense … the Lady Fish have plans on reeling in a much bigger championship March 14 in Forest Grove.

For now, Astoria will celebrate a 38-31 victory over Heritage in the girls championship game of the Vince Dulcich Tournament at the Brick House.

The Timberwolves — a class 4A Washington team (the equivalent of a 6A Oregon school) from Vancouver, Washington, — and their tall lineup forced Astoria into a poor night on offense (5-for-31 from the field in the first half, 1-of-15 from the 3-point line for the game), but Heritage couldn’t figure out the defense thing.

The T-Wolves finished with a whopping 40 turnovers, or 1.3 per minute.

“The defense is what’s going to win us a lot of games,” said Astoria coach Mike Jacobson, who picked up career win No. 326. “We can score, but our defense is the key. We’ve got a pretty good defense.

“We didn’t play well Friday, and we couldn’t shoot in the first half (against Heritage). We couldn’t make anything, didn’t make our free throws, and we weren’t aggressive enough on defense.”

The point being … if Astoria can keep its opponents to 31 points or less (which the Fishermen did for the second night in a row), the offensive problems won’t matter too much.

Astoria players were clogging up the passing lanes all night long, intercepting inbounds passes, making numerous steals and converting the turnovers into points when they needed them most — in the second half, when the Fishermen more than tripled their first half output.

At other times, the Timberwolves were making it a little too easy for Astoria, which did not have to work too hard to force many of the 22 first half turnovers.

At the other end of the floor, the Lady Fish weren’t exactly taking advantage of their good fortune.

Astoria struggled from the floor, missing 26 shots in the first two quarters, many from inside 10 feet.

Heritage 6-foot-2 junior point guard Katie Peneuta led all scorers with 20 points — but while Peneuta was taking hard fouls on offense, she was the one who ended up in foul trouble, fouling out in the waning seconds of the game.

There wasn’t much scoring from either side in the first half.

Peneuta’s 3-pointer gave the T-Wolves a 9-2 lead, and Heritage led 13-9 after one quarter.

In a turnover-filled second period (21 combined turnovers, 14 by Heritage), the T-Wolves held a 15-11 halftime lead.

The shots finally started dropping for the Fishermen in the third quarter.

Kajsa Jackson hit a few short jumpers, Kelsey Fausett and Hailey O’Brien added baskets, while the big second half playmaker was Halle Helmersen.

The junior scored twice off steals, then took it up another notch in the fourth quarter, hitting running jumpers and converting free throws.

Jackson’s bank shot with 1:25 left in the third gave the Fish the lead for good at 23-22, and Helmersen’s three-point play with 3:57 left ended up being the winning points, giving Astoria a 34-29 lead.

Helmersen outscored everybody in the final four minutes of the game, with seven points on her way to a team-high 16.

Jackson finished with eight, and Fausett added seven.

Astoria will take its longest road trip ever this week, for the Denali Auto Glass/Pepsi Invitational in Anchorage, Alaska. The Lady Fishermen play Kotzebue in the tournament’s first game, Thursday at 9 a.m.

The tournament will be streamed live online at kctf.org.

Astoria played Saturday’s game without its two tallest players on the roster, Kailee Fisher and starter Brooklynn Hankwitz, out with a sprained ankle.

“We miss Brooklynn, but we’ll hope to have her for the second or third game (in the upcoming tournament), and Kailee is getting back soon,” Jacobson said. “It’s nice that we can get more girls in, like Shelby (Rasmussen), Mollie (Matthews) and Taileigh (Cole).”

Astoria 37, Mazama 31

In another low-scoring contest the night before, Astoria held a slim 15-13 lead at halftime, then held off Mazama in the second half for a 37-31 win.

Hailey O’Brien led the Lady Fishermen with 11 points, all in the first three quarters.

Astoria was 9-of-16 from the free throw line, while Mazama’s Kennedy Lease hit four 3-pointers on her way to a game-high 15 points.

Gary Henley is a sports reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 503-861-8493 or ghenley@dailyastorian.com.

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