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Benefield: Tehya Bird soars for Cloverdale hoops against Middletown

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The only blemish on Tehya Bird’s game Friday night was on her face.

The senior post player was sterling — putting up 33 points in Cloverdale High’s 59-37 win over the visiting Middletown Mustangs. No points were, perhaps, as important as her fifth and sixth early in the first quarter. Bird was under the basket, scrambling for a loose ball, when she got it and got an easy little putback.

Those were her 2,000th and 2,001st points of her basketball career for the Eagles, but on Friday night, it was something else — it was a tone setter for the entire night. Bird’s 33 points came against an aggressive Middletown defense that brought all it could against her and nothing was good enough.

She emerged from the landmark play having put the Eagles ahead, but she was also bleeding from her face. It seemed oddly appropriate. It takes a lot to stop her.

“Her ability to get to the free-throw line is incredible,” Middletown coach Andrew Brown said.

Still, only seven of her points came from the free-throw line. The vast majority of her points were pure strength: Rebounds and putbacks, or swivels and underhand scoops. Middletown did not have an answer.

“I really just try to go hard for the ball no matter what,” Bird said. “As long as you go hard, good things will happen.”

The win moves the Eagles to 12-0 in North Central I League play with just two games remaining. They are a lock for at least a share of the league title. They play at Fort Bragg Tuesday and at Clear Lake Thursday. The Eagles beat Fort Bragg by 20 in their first meeting and beat Clear Lake 55-46 on Jan. 24.

Middletown falls to 10-2 in league, with their only two losses at the hands of the Eagles. The Mustangs host Willits on Tuesday and Lower Lake on Thursday.

“The girls were ready to play,” Cloverdale coach Rick Berry said. “We practiced hard this week. We were ready for their intense zone defense.”

The Eagles essentially played four guards and Bird down low against the Mustangs. Even with two and three players collapsing on Bird, she was still muscling up points.

Asked if there was any answer to Bird, Brown just shook his head.

“Not at this level,” he said.

Even after Bird and Middletown senior Bella Dubois had a violent collision right in front of the Eagles’ bench with just under six minutes to play. Dubois got up, but Bird stayed on the court for some time and when she got up, she was clearly shaken and holding her jaw.

She stayed in the game and scored on the Eagles’ next possession. It was that kind of night for her.

But the Mustangs made a game of it until the fourth quarter. It was 15-10 Eagles after one and 25-20 at halftime. After three quarters it was still only 37-31, but the Mustangs went ice cold in the final period. They managed only one field goal the entire quarter and dropped in four free throws as the Eagles’ defense held them to just six points.

“We let it slip away at many levels,” Brown said.

But Berry said the offensive explosion in the fourth was not unusual for his Eagles.

“We have a tendency to do that all year,” Berry said. “Games that are close, people give us their best shot and then all of a sudden we will have a spurt where we get a bunch of points, either a 23- or 24-point quarter.”

Friday night? The Eagles had 22 in the fourth quarter after average 12 per period through three quarters.

Mustangs guard Paige Astley, a sophomore, started the game red hot — dropping in eight points in the first quarter — but the Eagles found an answer.

“We had a little mismatch,” Berry said of the early defense on Astley. “We were kind of out of position with her. They had more of a guard front, so we had to just play four guards and Tehya.”

Brianna Alves, a junior, led all Mustangs with 11 points.

The Eagles got seven points from junior Faith Holloman, five from junior Alyssa Moffett, and four a piece from sophomore Summer Lands and junior Ahna Rudolph. Junior Catherine Driver had just two points but she was a steady hand against a relentless Mustangs defense that threw different presses at the Eagles all night.

“Catherine Driver is our key,” Berry said. “She sees the court really well, she’s a great leader. She really is a savvy basketball player.”

Earning at least a share of the NCLI league championship is great for the Eagles’ banner chase but better for their playoff prospects.

The Eagles came into the contest ranked first in the North Coast Section among Division 5 programs. What does that mean? Home games in the playoffs, and in Cloverdale that is huge.

“Home court, the fans are great and playoffs we get bigger fans. It’s hard to beat us at home,” Berry said.

That is no lie. The Eagles haven’t lost at home in three years, he said.

“It’s a huge advantage,” Bird said of playing at home. “I love it because it’s small, it gets crowded, it gets loud. A lot of people say it’s hard to play here and that makes me feel better. Our student section is amazing, and the fans are just loud and it echoes in here and gets loud and that’s what I like.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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