By AARON MANAGHAN
TACOMA — For a few moments, Pepper Fanua blocked everything out. The crowd noise, the last-second instruction and encouragement from coaches and teammates, even the sound of her own heart beating.
“My heart just stopped,” she said. “I was like, ‘I have to focus.’”
After drawing a foul with 1.9 seconds to play, her team down by a single point, the Olympic senior guard stood stoically at the free-throw line, all too aware that these would be the biggest shots of her high school career.
And with a calm and collected cool, Fanua iced both to lift Olympic to a 43-42 win against Mount Rainier and pull the Trojans within a win of the state tournament.
“It was a fabulous finish,” Olympic coach Rick Peters said. “We knew what we had to do and they executed. Free throws at the end were crucial and Pepper nailed ‘em down.”
While free-throw shooting hasn’t always been Fanua’s strongest hoops attribute, she said she’s worked long and hard on her free throws both with the current and previous Oly staff.
“I probably would have never made those if the coaching staff hadn’t hammered those into me,” Fanua said. “It comes in handy.”
Trailing the Rams (15-8) by five points with about 35 seconds left to play, Fanua took control of the game, stealing a pass and drawing a foul on MR’s Sarah Martinez. Fanua made both of those free throws to close the gap to 42-39. After Oly fouled on the ensuing inbounds, Ram Marisa Blair missed the first half of a one-and-one trip to the charity stripe, Fanua snagging the rebound. She then streaked coast-to-coast for a lay-in to cut the lead to 42-41 Rams with just 17 seconds remaining.
After an Oly timeout, Fanua then fouled Martinez, but she too missed her free throw. This time it was Oly’s Shawntell Bradford securing the board. She pushed a pass to Fauna, who drew another foul on Martinez with just 1.9 seconds left.
“Overtime would have been a blessing,” Peters said of the situation even had Fanua missed one of her game-winners.
But that hypothetical wasn’t necessary, as Fanua, who led Oly with 16 points, sunk the game winner.
“She’s a competitor,” Peters said of Fanua, who also grabbed 10 boards. “She’ll go out there and knock ‘em down.”
The win was especially sweet for Olympic coming off last week’s 72-38 drubbing at the hands of Kennedy. That loss proved an eye-opener for the Trojans, Peters said.
“We knew we didn’t want to get beat like that ever again,” he said. “I think we had a solid practice on Friday. We came prepared. I thought we matched up better with them.”
In Saturday’s win at Mount Tahoma High School, the Trojans controlled the boards and could have controlled the game from much earlier on had it not been for so many missed second chances and lay-ins.
“Nicole Buhl and Shawntell Bradford are both very athletic,” Peters said of his post duo, who recorded 21 rebounds between them. “Our big problem was scoring inside.”
Sammy Viray was the next-highest Trojan scorer with nine, while Buhl had seven along with Serah Peterson. Bradford looked particularly tentative offensively, finishing scoreless despite several of her eight boards coming on the offensive glass.
Still, the offensive off-night down low should be by the wayside, Fanua said.
“Our posts, Shawntell and Nicole, they bust their butts off in practice,” she said. “They’re very important to our interior game.”
Buhl, who also added four blocks to go with her 13 boards, experienced the ultimate emotional roller coaster. One of Oly’s leaders, Buhl fouled out with 1:26 to play in the game while Oly trailed then by three but soon by five.
After she joined the bench, walking by her teammates to the far end, she could hardly watch the rest of the game between fighting tears and covering her eyes. When Fauna earned her final trip to the line, Buhl couldn’t watch, burying her face in her arms. But after the last point fell, Buhl was among the first to skyrocket out of her chair.
“It’s very uplifting,” Fanua said of her teammates’ collective reaction. “It makes you want to do better, to work harder.”
She said that team atmosphere is one of the things that’s helped her grow most as a ballplayer.
“Personally, I feel like I’ve come a long way playing with a well-rounded team,” she said. “We can depend on each other. We have each other there to pick us up when we’re down.”
With a strong senior core centering on Fanua, Buhl and Bradford, but also including Allyson Reynante, Fanua said the seniors have taken on more responsibility in trying to help the team back to state — where Oly’s not tread since 1995.
“This season, our senior season, we knew we had to carry the team through the whole tournament and work our way up to state,” Fanua said. “As long as the seniors keep everyone focused, we can achieve our dream.”
Peters agreed in saying the team, which can advance to state with a win against Kelso on Friday, is capable.
“I think we have a good shot,” he said.
Kelso (16-6) defeated Lindbergh by a single point, 39-38, just moments before Oly’s game began. A loss to Kelso means Oly will play Saturday for the seventh and final berth.
“I definitely don’t want the basketball season to end right now,” Fanua said.