WALLA WALLA - Nearly halfway through the season, the Dayton girls basketball team was still in search of its first victory.
Now the Bulldogs are just one victory away from their first state tournament appearance since 2006.
Dayton, which came out of nowhere to claim the Southeast B District's No. 2 regional seed, faces Brewster, the top seed from District 5-6, Saturday afternoon at 4 in the Wa-Hi gym with a Washington Class B state tournament berth hanging in the balance.
"They are really good," first-year Dayton coach Clayton Strong said of the Bears, who enter Saturday's game with a 21-2 record and an 18-game winning streak.
"They have a 6-foot sophomore point guard who is averaging 20 points a game and handles the ball like an experienced senior boy. And they have another girl who is scoring about 15 points a game."
Chandler Smith is the sophomore who directs the Bears offense and leads them in scoring. Smith averaged close to 30 points per game in three district tournament victories.
"We have to rebound and take care of the basketball," Strong said of his team. "We need to keep their girls in front of us and contest shots without fouling. We have to play like we did against Asotin on Saturday and not like we did against Waitsburg-Prescott on Monday."
The Bulldogs entered the district tournament as the fourth seed. They beat Tri-Cities Prep 61-42 in the first round and then ambushed No. 2 seed Asotin 41-37 in the semifinals. In the game to decide seeding into regionals, Dayton lost to Waitsburg-Prescott 45-33.
Dayton is 9-14 overall but has posted a 9-6 record in its last 15 games after beginning the year 0-8.
"We've been playing .600 basketball the last 15 games," Strong said. "We played a very difficult schedule early in the season that tested us. We needed to get that first victory under our belts and get some confidence."
That first win came Dec. 30 in the consolation finals of Dayton's Christmas tournament. The Bulldogs celebrated New Years Eve a night early with a 51-18 victory over Lacrosse-Washtucna.
That was the start of a four-game streak culminated by a 55-53 victory over Tekoa-Oakesdale, the team that had started the Bulldogs' eight-game losing streak a month earlier with a 54-42 victory on the Nighthawks' home court.
"We won that game on a shot at the buzzer," Strong said of the victory over T-O. "That kind of cemented the girls' belief that they could compete."
Junior McKayla Bickelhaupt, who hit that game-winning basket, leads Dayton scorers with a nine-point average, Strong said. Shelby Smith, one of only three seniors on the roster, is right behind Bickelhaupt, averaging eight points a game.
"But over the last 15 games, I would suspect all of my girls are averaging more than their season averages," Strong said. "All of the averages are pumped up because we are scoring more as a team. We had a lot of games early where we didn't score many points."
Dayton and Brewster haven't met on the basketball court since 2000 when the Bears defeated the Bulldogs 60-55 in the Class 1A state championship game in Yakima. Dayton was at that time in the midst of making seven consecutive trips to the 1A state tourney.
In Saturday's 6 p.m. regional game at Wa-Hi, Waitsburg-Prescott takes its 19-4 season record and No. 1 regional seed against Riverside Christian, which is 19-6 and is the No. 3 seed from District 5-6.
"One of the things that we know about them is that they beat DeSales by eight or nine points earlier in the season," W-P coach Jerry Baker said of the Crusaders. "One of their girls does a lot of scoring, but we haven't decided exactly what defense we are going to use against her.
"We feel like we are sitting pretty good," Baker said. "We have a few tweaked ankles, about five of them in fact, but nothing that will keep anybody from playing."