Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Willpower won it.
With 50 seconds remaining in a tie ballgame, Michelle Simmons willed herself on a full-court drive. She willed her way around screening defenders, along the sideline, through the paint to the basket, and if the look on her face was any indication, she willed the ball down through the hoop.
Her free throw to complete the three-point play willed the game nearly out of reach with 43 seconds to play in regulation, and the Ignacio High School girls basketball team willed its way into the state tournament for the first time in a decade with a 53-49 victory over Paonia on Saturday at Durango High School.
The Bobcats – San Juan Basin League regular-season and district champions and now Class 2A Region 3 champions, too – are headed back to the CHSSA Class 2A Girls Basketball State Championships, their first elite eight appearance since 2003.
IHS (16-7), one of eight teams still standing, will play Thursday at Massari Arena in Pueblo.
“She said ‘Give me the ball, and I’m gone,’” IHS first-year head coach Justa Whitt said of Simmons’ drive.
Those words and that determination came in the huddle, seconds after one of Paonia’s leading scorers, Carson Piper, dropped a layup of her own to finish with 14 points and tie the game at 49-all.
The near-capacity crowd at DHS rose to its feet.
Through the din, Simmons couldn’t hear much but her own thoughts.
“I was just thinking, ‘I’m going to get a charge or I’m going to score; I’m going to the basket,’” Simmons said.
And nothing was going to get in her way.
Not two bodies, not Piper’s hands. The backboard clunked, the net swished, the whistle blew, the crowd erupted, Piper walked off with her fifth foul, and then, the net swished again.
Three points: Game, set, match.
“If you’re going to let her go coast to coast, you’re not going to win games,” Paonia head coach Scott Rienks said.
Simmons finished with a game-high 20 points after her foul shot.
Moments later, Sky Cotton knelt down at the free throw line – something like a Tebowing pose – and willed one more shot to fall, the second of two free throws, for the final margin.
The crowd – and plenty of Ignacio tears – erupted one more time.
“Holy ... I can’t say that,” Whitt said of the rollercoaster win, still wiping her eyes after the game.
The Eagles didn’t make getting there easy.
Their overbearing pressure defense kept the Bobcats under duress for much of the game, turning Ignacio over 34 times, including 14 in the first quarter – where the Bobcats averaged more than two a minute for the first four minutes – and 10 in the third.
Paonia’s Chelsy Reed was the main ball bandit.
“(She’s) an outstanding pressure player,” Whitt said.
The Bobcats led 24-22 at the halfway mark, after their turnovers left them trailing 12-11 after one quarter.
After the intermission, though, IHS used a seven-point run, capped by a sturdy Valerie Armstrong 3-pointer to pull ahead by eight, its largest lead of the game.
But with Simmons on the bench in foul trouble, the Eagles forced four consecutive IHS turnovers, then six turnovers on seven Bobcat possessions, and Reed scored five of her team-high-tying 14 points on an 11-2 Paonia run.
Reed’s layup put the Eagles back ahead at 34-33 in what would be one of 11 lead changes Saturday.
Paonia held that lead until a putback by Simmons put IHS ahead 38-37, then Piper knocked down a free throw to tie it at 38 – her first made free throw of the day as she went 2-for-9 from the foul line as part of Paonia’s 7-for-19 total.
“If you can’t make your free throws and layups, you’re not going to win games,” Rienks said.
Armstrong knew what to do next: Square up and shoot from 3-point land.
“I think she knew what she had to do,” Simmons said. “That’s her offense – 3-pointers. ... That’s what she does.”
She did it, finished with 10 points, and the Bobcats wouldn’t trail again.
The Eagles tied it at 47 on Reed’s putback layup – offensive rebounds mauled the Bobcats throughout play – then again at 49.
That’s when Simmons decided she’d had enough.