LAS VEGAS — All season long, they had to prove themselves.
There was drama. There were egos. It was a different group of girls, making this year the toughest. The target on their backs was the biggest it had ever been.
But the Lady Wave basketball team persevered, once again, winning its third-straight 3A state championship, a 45-42 victory over Moapa Valley, making its first finals appearance in 19 years, on Saturday at the Orleans Arena.
“We ended exactly how we wanted. I don’t think we could have ended it any better way,” Fallon senior point guard Kenna Hamlin said. “The most important thing is we’re always going to be a Greenwave. That means more than on the court. That means home and everything.”
A pivotal team discussion during practice following an error-plagued win over South Tahoe in January brought the group closer. Fallon cleaned up its mistakes and played like it had the previous two seasons.
“We had a pretty big talk,” Fallon senior Emily Wright said. “We had some turmoil with some of the girls. We were on rocky. We had a big conversation. That’s when it turned for everybody.”
Fallon continued its league-winning streak, concluding the regular season with win No. 65 over Fernley. This group of six seniors never lost a league game as the Otuafi cousins (Leilani and Leta) and Hamlin have been with the program since freshman year. Chandler McAlexander and Alexis Jarrett joined a year later and this was Wright’s first year on varsity.
“It was hard and we knew we had to stick through it this season,” McAlexander said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be like other seasons. We knew we had to work a lot harder to get this far to win.”
For Hamlin, the win has many meanings.
“It’s been great. It’s one of the best experiences,” said Hamlin, who was sidelined last year with a soccer injury. “Last year was amazing for us to win as a team. This one kind of meant a little bit more. When it comes to this senior class, it means everything to us. No matter what sport it is, we’ve all put in our work. We’ve earned it.”
Leta Otuafi, like she did in last year’s state final, led the Lady Wave with 16 points but her cousin, Leilani, shook off a two-point performance in the semifinal by scoring 12, including six in the first quarter.
“This program has come a long way. It’s taken all of us,” said Leta Otuafi, who will play at Utah State Eastern next year. “Every single year, it’s taken every single girl in the program to build it to where it was. I’m proud to be part of it. I’m proud to represent not only this team, but this community as well.”
Leilani Otuafi, who heads to BYU next season, spent three hours in the gym following Friday’s win over Boulder City. She was prepared to do whatever was necessary to end the season on the highest note.
“It definitely means a lot to us because we came a long way since the Lowry game,” she said, referencing when Lowry beat Fallon in the 2016 regional championship. “After we heard that they lost (on Friday), we knew it was going to be a different game.”
Sophomore Madison Whitaker scored eight points, and McAlexander, Hamlin and junior Makenzee Moretto, who had a monster semifinal performance, each had three.
“The target on your back is bigger. People are really having to play better than their best to beat us,” Fallon coach Anne Smith said. “An advantage that we had is that we were here two times before playing for that game. We understood the pressures of what we were doing and what we were walking into. That was to our advantage. That first year you’re working so hard because you’ve never done it before. The second year, it’s huge going back to back and the third year, maybe, you get a little complacent.”
Fallon led by as many as seven in the fourth quarter but Moapa Valley didn’t back down, slowly chipping away at the deficit.
After Leta Otuafi’s fastbreak layup gave Fallon a 42-35 lead with 4 minutes, 28 seconds left in the game, senior Alexis Jarrett fouled out as Moapa Valley’s Lainey Cornwall hit the front end of a 1-and-1 to slice the deficit to six. Another free throw by Emma Humes with 1:16 left brought the Pirates to within five before McAlexander hit a free throw seven seconds later.
After fouling out to end her career before switching to softball, Jarrett had to watch from the bench as the next 76 seconds unfolded.
“We’re just super close. We’re definitely sisters,” Jarrett said. “It’s good to play with one another and play for our community and the town. I love that.”
Both teams traded missed free throws in the next half-minute with Hamlin, and Leta and Leilani Otuafi each missing the first attempt on a 1-on-1. Peyton Schraft sunk her second attempt from the charity stripe as did Whitaker, keeping Fallon’s lead at five (44-39) with 16.9 seconds left.
Moapa Valley raced down the court and Humes hit a 3-pointer in the corner, prompting a Pirates timeout with 7.2 seconds left. Leading by only two, Kaitlyn Anderson fouled Hamlin, who hit the backend of a pair of free throws with 2.5 seconds left, but the Pirates couldn’t get past half court, heaving an unanswered prayer as Fallon’s bench stormed the court for the third-consecutive year.
Emilie Barraza led the Pirates with 13 points, including a trio of 3’s, and Cornwall added 10 and Humes and Anserson each had nine.
Four different players fueled Fallon’s 8-2 run to open the game but Anderson’s 3-pointer trimmed it to two with 2:22 left. Leilani Otuafi, though, scored the next four points to give Fallon a 14-8 lead going into the second quarter.
The Pirates battled back with 11 points in the second quarter to trail by five at halftime. Although “Lowry” wasn’t written across their jerseys, Smith said the Pirates were very similar to their league rival.
“It was like a Lowry because they do that drive and dish,” she said. “That’s hard to play because you’re one-on-one and if you drop somebody to help, they dish to somebody on the 3-point line and you’re working hard on trying to close out. They were able to hit from the 3-point line. That made it tough. They were ready. They packed it in for us offensively. They took away our inside.”
The Otuafi assist-to-score combination was effective with Leilani finding Leta in the paint. Leta Otuafi sunk both free throws to give Fallon an eight-point lead with 3:52 left and Moretto’s three-point play with 1:35 to go gave Fallon its biggest lead (nine) at 24-15. Barraza and Anderson, however, scored the half’s final four points.
Both teams didn’t come out of the lockers until the third quarter was about to begin, as Fallon’s coaching staff arrived on the court 20 seconds into the half.
“Ultimately, the girls stuck to the game plan and we made a few adjustments at half about our defensive rotation and not to play them so tight on the ball,” Smith said. “We switched their screens. Our posts were taller than everybody so it really didn’t matter if a guard could guard their post. We were able to switch guard to post. The height difference wasn’t there. It was good.”
Cornwall added to the Pirates’ run to bring the team to within three points after McAlexander picked up her fourth foul with 6:45 remaining. The Otuafis scored the next six points, including a Jarett-Leilani Otuafi combination followed by Hamlin’s steal dished to Otuafi to give Fallon a seven-point lead with 4:40 left.
Fallon carried a four-to-five-point lead for the rest of the quarter but Barraza’s 3 in the corner at the buzzer sliced it to four (37-33).