Sometimes, the easiest games on your schedule are the hardest ones to play.
When fans saw that the West Linn boys basketball team was scheduled last Friday to play Milwaukie, a team that is winless in the TRL this season, it was easy to assume that the Lions would win by 20 points or more. It would have been a fair prediction since Lake Oswego had beaten Milwaukie by 23 points just three days earlier.
Despite their woeful record, the Mustangs proved to be anything but a pushover, however. In fact, the Lions had to scramble just to pull out a 56-52 victory.
Granted, it was not an artistic victory for the Lions. They did show some moments of brilliance, though, like early in the third when they jumped to a 16-point lead. But West Linn eventually squandered all but two points of that lead, and then recovered to hold off Milwaukie's rally down the stretch.
In the final analysis, the only thing that really mattered was the fact that West Linn won the contest and remained just one game out first place in the TRL.
'That was the weirdest game, I think, that we've had this year,' West Linn coach Aaron Downs said after the contest.
Through large parts of the first half, the Lions seemed to be running on five cylinders - chugging along just enough to stay in front of the methodical Mustangs, but never with enough momentum to open a big lead.
During that half, the Lions had trouble finishing plays. They missed a surprising number of close-range shots that could have blown the game wide open. Because of that, West Linn had a two-minute scoreless stretch in the first quarter and a three-minute drought in the second period.
Still, the Lions never trailed in the first half. Nor did they relinquish the lead in the second half, although they came extremely close on a couple of occasions. That in itself says something about West Linn's resilience, and the team's ability to win even when it's not at its best.
'In the end, we came out on top and that's what counts,' Downs said. '(This season) we've had some really good games and some OK games, and this one was a good one to build on.'
Aside from Milwaukie's rally late in the game, there was always a feeling that West Linn was on the verge of turning the game into a rout.
After starting slowly, West Linn finally starting clicking late in the first period, which ended with the Lions holding a 12-5 lead. That advantage grew to 22-11 after Ryan Barnes scored West Linn's first two baskets of the second period and Jesse Prych scored on back-to-back trips midway through that quarter.
But the Mustangs couldn't be reined in. The biggest reason why was Jon Opperud, a bruising, 6-foot-7, 285-pound center, who was a handful for West Linn's inside players. He scored five times in the final five minutes of the half and West Linn's lead was down to 27-23 at the break.
Whatever Downs told his troops at halftime, it had the desired affect. The Lions responded by scoring the first 12 points of the third quarter to push their lead to 39-23. At that point, most people in attendance, at least the ones on West Linn's side, were probably figuring that Milwaukie was finished. And they weren't the only ones who thought that.
'Our kids thought it was over,' Downs said.
Leading the way on West Linn's breakout start to the second half was Justin Monahan, who has been on fire over the last two or three weeks. He scored his team's first seven points of the third quarter. Then, when the Milwaukie defense began to collapse on him, Monahan became a playmaker and assisted on the next two baskets in the run - both by Tommy Patrick, who finished the night with 13 points.
It was vintage Monahan, who probably wound up being the difference in the game.
'He took over in the third quarter, and we kind of rely on that,' Downs said of Monahan.
The game was looking incredibly easy for West Linn at that point - maybe too easy. Then, West Linn began to relax a bit and Milwaukie was quick to take advantage.
The Mustangs finally broke the Lions' big run when Brandon Delestatious hit a three-pointer at the 3:09 mark of the third stanza. Opperud and Patrick followed by trading jumpers on back-to-back to possessions, which left West Linn with a 41-28 lead.
Then, the game completely turned around as the Mustangs scored 11 consecutive points to cut West Linn's lead to 41-39 early in the fourth quarter. Opperud had eight of his team-high 21 points during that run. Suddenly, the West Linn fans were nervous again.
No problem, though, because the Lions had Monahan on their side, and the Mustangs simply could not stop his slashing drives to the hoop. He scored 11 of his game-high 23 points during the last six minutes of the game. In the process, he kept Milwaukie from completing its comeback. Two times during that stretch, the Lions had as much as a nine-point lead.
But the Mustangs still refused to quit. Delestatious and Sam Hanthaley both hit a three-pointer in the final 30 seconds to keep things interesting, but the Lions were never really in danger of losing the lead in the waning seconds.
'Give Milwaukie credit. They hit some shots,' Downs said.
The West Linn coach wasn't surprised that the Mustangs managed to stay close most of the way. He knew they were a better team than people were giving them credit for.
'They played Clackamas and Putnam tough last week,' Downs said. 'They were in both of those games until the last minute or two.'
Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that West Linn had a chance to take control of the game in third quarter and then almost let it get away.
'We've got to learn to finish that (type of game),' Downs said.
But, as noted earlier, West Linn got the victory and that's all that really mattered.