Mercer Island girls basketball team earns 4th seed in state tournament

Islander forward Sarah Taylor delivers a jump pass over a defender against Franklin during Sea-King District tournament play at Bellevue Community College on Saturday. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Islander forward Sarah Taylor delivers a jump pass over a defender against Franklin during Sea-King District tournament play at Bellevue Community College on Saturday.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

The Mercer Island girls basketball team qualified for the state playoffs with the No. 4 seed by going 2-2 during the Sea-King District playoffs at Bellevue Community College. The two-week tournament was a mix of tough opponents, the elation of accomplishing a goal and the frustration of injuries.

“It was awesome to achieve a goal we have had all season,” said Islander guard Hailey Gullstad. “We proved we can run with any opponent.”

The players began building that confidence when they defeated Cleveland, 53-45, during their first district game on Feb. 27. From there, the Islanders faced a tough Holy Names team during the semi-finals.

The Islanders led 24-19 at halftime and held a 10-point lead during the contest, but 23 fourth-quarter points for Holy Names gave the private school the victory, 64-59, on March 3. Gullstad led the Islanders with 18 points, while senior Janelle Chow added 14 points.

“We felt that we should have won on Tuesday,” said Mercer Island coach Jamie Prescott. “We were a bit bitter that we had to qualify for state by winning another game.”

That was exactly what the team did on Thursday with a 59-43 victory against Seattle Prep. The Islanders built a seven-point lead before pulling away during the third quarter. The team pushed its advantage to 41-27 by the start of the fourth quarter. The Islander defense held the Prep Panthers to single digits during two quarters. Again, Gullstad led the team with 12 points. But the sophomore was called on to do much more during the consolation final on Saturday.

A mix of injuries and academic ineligibility forced two starters and two reserves from the lineup, leaving Mercer Island undermanned. The problem left Mercer Island without its starting center Kate DaPron, a presence in the middle against a team with two very powerful post players. Injuries also took away the team’s second highest scorer in Jea Shin. Both players are expected to return to the lineup for state.

But the disparity caused a loss of confidence against Franklin, said Prescott.

“We have to be able to respond and compete even if our best players aren’t on the court,” said Prescott.

The team struggled to get back its basketball legs as Franklin took a 9-2 lead early. But Islander freshman Heidi Black and Gullstad helped to bring Mercer Island back from the brink of disaster. Black scored 10 first-half points, while Gullstad had eight points with four assists.

“Heidi had a great game, and she was able to fill our holes for a while,” said Prescott.

A Gullstad drive to the basket, bucket and subsequent foul shot gave Mercer Island its first lead of the game at 21-20.

But the Quakers struck right back and built a 33-28 lead at the half as the Mercer Island defense had no answer for Franklin’s Jocelyn Jones, who scored 15 of her 20 points for the game during the second quarter. A visually exhausted Islander team headed to the locker room to find answers.

“We had a lot of people out, so it was difficult to keep the momentum,” said Islander senior Janelle Chow.

The senior would play a large role during the second half by scoring seven of her 10 total points during the second half. But this wasn’t enough to win. Franklin eventually took advantage of the disparity on the bench, going on to win the game, 62-47.

Mercer Island will begin its run at the state tournament at 3:30 p.m. today at the Tacoma Dome, against Prairie. The biggest pressure will be placed on Chow and junior Kaylia Balinbin, who are the only two players with any state experience. The privilege of playing at state puts Chow in some elite company.

“It is pretty nice to get to go to state in three different sports,” said Chow. “I just want to play my hardest because I think we can beat any team.”

The state tournament will also be an interesting experiment for Islander Hannah Lilly. The junior has missed the entire season after an ACL injury during the off-season. She is now cleared to compete.

“It is definitely scary because I haven’t played in eight months,” said Lilly. “I might play a couple minutes at a time, but we will take it slow.”

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