At first it was seen purely as an after-practice gift, which caused the girls on the Wilson High School basketball team to scream with delight.
Then they realized the true meaning behind the alternative camouflage T-shirts that were handed out by coach Michelle Birge and her staff Thursday night.
They didn’t have to look very far. On the back, the message read: “Go Hard or Go Home!”
As a result, the Rams are alive and staying home.
Buoyed by constant transition pressure and second-chance points, eighth-ranked Wilson finally held off Ferndale, 59-54, in the Class 3A regional round Saturday afternoon at Mount Tahoma High School.
Wilson (19-5) advances to the state championships in the Tacoma Dome for a fourth consecutive season.
“This is really big,” Rams guard Kiara Knox said. “We thought from the start we could make it back, so it is very important.”
It has been a huge comeback for a team that lost three-year starters Bethany Montgomery and Tia Briggs to graduation last season. Violet Morrow, Knox and Tyra Foster have assumed the roles of inside enforcers, and ninth-grade point guard Josie Matz runs the show outside.
But Birge was looking for refreshing ways to push their buttons heading into the postseason. Earlier in the season, she saw Timberline players wearing T-shirts with camouflage lettering and thought it was a cool idea for her own team.
“For our big games, we dressed in camouflage,” Birge said. “It was like we were going to work, going to battle.”
They were in a battle Saturday. Tied at 38 entering the fourth quarter, the Rams ripped off a 10-0 run in the first 3:25. Two of their baskets were on putbacks by Foster and Morrow.
But Ferndale (19-6) would not go away. Brooke Benson hit a corner 3-pointer to cut Wilson’s lead to 55-52 with 15 seconds remaining.
Morrow hit two free throws for the Rams, but Taryn Knutson answered with a basket for the Golden Eagles to leave them trailing 57-54 with seconds to go.
Morrow had one more chance to sew up the victory on the free throw line. And she made both of them with three seconds remaining. She tallied nine of her 15 points in the fourth quarter.
“I believed in our core five,” Birge said. “We have enough right now we can bother some teams and take them out.”
Wilson 58, Mountlake Terrace 38: It’s never too late to figure out effective ways to be an efficient point guard.
Ivy Smith Jr. said in the past few games he has realized he doesn’t have to be a speeding-bullet ballhandler with no apparent target.
“A good point guard slows the game down and gets his team easy buckets,” Smith said. “As long as I am doing right, everyone else does right.”
Smith had one of his best all-around games for the No. 5 Rams (22-3) – 15 points, six assists and five steals. He also took two offensive charges.
Wilson is back in the 3A state tournament for the first time since 2011-12.
The Rams broke away midway through the third quarter on back-to-back 3-pointers by David Jenkins and Elijah Welch to grab a 41-29 advantage.
Wilson then scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter to go up, 50-31.
But it was the Rams’ transition offense and ability to lock up Mountlake Terrace ballhandlers that turned a close game into a rout. Smith was the catalyst behind both. The Hawks (17-8) committed 23 turnovers.
“Our intensity on the ball ... gave them fits,” Wilson coach Dave Alwert said. “It really comes down to when we play hard, smart and together on the defensive side, we are a really good team.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442; email@example.com