Lady Wranglers slip into state playoffs; opened at Winslow

Sophomore guard Katie Cushman shoots a free throw at the end of the third quarter in the Lady Wranglers’ final home game of the season against Tonopah Valley. She again led the Lady Wranglers in scoring with 14 points in the 35-24 victory and learned after the game she was named to the all-region first team and identified as the 3A West Region Offensive Player of the Year by region coaches. 

By Kevin Cloe

Sun Correspondent/Photographer

Chino Valley opened the back door, and Wickenburg High School’s girls basketball team gratefully stepped into the 3A Conference state playoffs last week.

The Lady Wranglers, whose late-season five-game winning streak put them in a three-way tie for second place with Kingman Academy and Kingman in the 3A Region standings, needed a victory in their final region outing or help to qualify for the state playoffs. A second-place finish in the region guaranteed an invitation to the playoffs.

They lost to region champion Northwest Christian Feb. 11 but immediately learned afterward that Chino Valley upset Kingman Academy that same night to put the Lady Wranglers in the final playoff spot of the 24-team postseason tournament.

Wickenburg’s girls, Kingman Academy and Kingman all finished with 5-5 records in region action, but the Lady Wranglers had the better tie-breaking record against conference schools at 9-7 during the full season compared to Kingman Academy’s 5-5 and Kingman’s 5-7.

So Coach Kevin Cushman’s 28th-ranked girls took a three-hour trip north Tuesday, Feb. 18, to face ninth-ranked and heavily favored Winslow in the first round of the 3A state playoffs. Results were not available at press time, but an upset victory would send the Lady Wranglers on a five-hour trip to the Navajo Indian Reservation to battle eighth-ranked Chinle. A loss against Winslow would end the Lady Wranglers’ season.

It didn’t take long for the Lady Wranglers’ hopes of advancing to the state playoffs to go dark when they battled Northwest Christian early last week in Phoenix. They had been the only region team to knock off the Lady Crusaders (9-1) earlier in the season, 29-24, which started their five-game winning streak.

However, the Northwest girls jumped out to a 13-7 lead through the first quarter and never looked back en route to an eventual 45-32 victory.

Although he explained how his girls adjusted to his change in offensive strategy that led to a string of five straight wins after a four-game losing streak to start region play, Coach Cushman realized a repeat of the earlier triumph against the Lady Crusaders was challenging.

“They were flat,” he noted about the Lady Crusaders in the earlier meeting. “They score more than we do in games (Northwest’s 45 points per region game versus the Lady Wranglers’ 38). We’re going to need to run and press.”

Although his Lady Wranglers stayed within eight points, 23-15, by halftime, they immediately fell 15 points behind in the third quarter after being outscored 7-0 to start the second half.

That’s when the door into the playoffs was beginning to close.

However, not long after the final buzzer sounded, the Lady Wranglers were gathering on the court for a team photo when Coach Cushman was told Chino Valley knocked off Kingman Academy. He waited to tell the girls the good news until they retreated to the locker room.

So what was their reaction?

“Clare (Peterson) cheered,” he said, noting his sophomore guard apparently was the only one who was aware of the team’s playoff chances. “The rest of them (looked puzzled).”

That was a tribute to the coach keeping his team’s focus on the game at hand and not on the playoffs.

His Lady Wranglers closed out the regular season with two non-region contests later in the week — defeating Tonopah Valley, 35-24, and Odyssey Institute, 33-23. That meant his girls finished the regular season winning seven of their last eight games.

Sophomore guard Katie Cushman finished last week scoring in double figures in all three games — 13 against Northwest Christian and 14 each against Tonopah Valley and Odyssey Institute.

Her sophomore backcourt teammate, Peterson, was the next leading scorer in those three games with an average of five points per game.

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