MIDDLETON — The Middleton girls basketball team was able to fairly easily coast through its first six games of the season.

But the Vikings showed they can also flex their muscles when they have to in the clutch.

Middleton survived a late run by Caldwell on Wednesday to beat the Cougars 54-48 in a battle of 4A Southern Idaho Conference unbeatens.

The Vikings (7-0, 5-0 4A SIC) stayed undefeated by making 5 of 6 free throws in the game’s final 35 seconds after Caldwell cut their lead to one.

“I think it’s just a really good learning experience because we were tested tonight to trust each other and trust our coach,” said senior Lexi Mitchell, who had 12 points in the win. “I think that’s what it came down to, knowing that each one of us had each others backs, that’s what really pulled it through.”

Middleton continues its best start since the 2012-13 season, which came in the midst of Middleton’s historic 72-game win streak.

The Vikings began to pull away from Caldwell (5-1, 3-1) late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.

Abi Cotterell broke a 40-40 tie with a basket and Mitchell added two free throws before the end of the third quarter. Middleton extended it to a 9-0 run early in the fourth quarter with a Mitchell 3-pointer giving the Vikings a 49-40 lead early in the fourth.

But Caldwell still made sure Middleton earned the victory, scoring the next eight points to cut the Vikings’ lead down to 49-48.

“I think we got ahead by a lot and I think we laid off a little bit,” said senior Haley Robinett, who led Middleton with 13 points. “At the end, it just got really frantic and everything was going crazy.”

Belle Bower had five points for Caldwell during that run, including the basket which cut the Vikings lead down to one, but the Cougars had plenty of missed opportunities throughout the run which could have made it even more.

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“I think we were tired,” Caldwell coach Ashley Green said about the end. “We played a really physical game.”

After Kat Vallejo cut the lead to 49-46, the Cougars had back-to-back defensive stops, but were unable to come away with any points off of those. After they made the third stop, they missed two shots before Bower finally had scored on a put back, which appeared to be touched by a Middleton player, but still went in.

“The mindset for our team is defense gives us offensive opportunities,” said Mitchell. “So we always work hard on defense and then get those opportunities on offense. That really made the difference, we just didn’t want them to make any last second shots that would put them back into the game.”

After Mitchell hit one of two free throws for the Vikings with 35 seconds left, Zoey Moore came up with a turnover under the Caldwell basket and hit both of her free throws to extend Middleton’s lead to four. Robinett added two more free throws in the closing seconds to help give the Vikings more insurance.

“It’s nothing that I didn’t learn this summer,” first-year Middleton coach Nichole Williamson said about what she learned about her team. “They find a way to win.”

The fourth quarter runs were hardly the only runs in the game. Middleton used a 16-2 run in the second quarter to go ahead 28-20, but the Cougars fought back with a 10-2 run to close the half as Middleton took a 30-29 lead into halftime.

“It’s definitely nerve wracking,” Mitchell said about playing in that type of game. “But as a senior, it’s easier to control the nerves because you’ve been in that situation before. As a senior now, my role is to calm everyone down and make sure everyone on the right track. I think it’s a learning experience, when we have a team down by 10, we really needed to them out then instead of letting them back in the game to avoid those nerves,”

Moore finished with 11 points for Middleton while Jozie Crawford scored seven. Middleton took sole possession of first place with their win paired with Bishop Kelly’s loss to Kuna on Wednesday night. Middleton plays at Bishop Kelly on Friday.

Jalen Callender had 13 points for Caldwell in the loss, while Bower finished with 12 points. Caldwell looks to rebound from its first loss of the season Friday with a road game against Nampa.

“I told the girls we’ll move forward, we’re not worried about this loss,” said Green. “This is one of the best teams in the state, we played a great game against them. We’ll move forward, make adjustments and keep doing our thing.”

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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