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Boys basketball: Wilsonville fends off La Salle to reach state title game for third straight year

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The Wildcats win 49-47 in the state semifinals game Thursday, March 9 at Gill Coliseum

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Wilsonville senior wing Zach Reichle scored 14 points against the Falcons.

As he stood along the baseline while watching players fly around in front of him and his team holding a tenuous lead, Wilsonville sophomore guard Jack Roche simply held the ball over his head and waited for the clock to run out.

The Wildcats had led by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter but point guard Jonah Pemberton and the Falcons forged a furious comeback and scored more points in the fourth quarter (25) than they had in the previous three quarter combined (22).

And when La Salle senior Jason Burns grabbed an offensive rebound and knocked in a lay-up inside, Wilsonville held a 49-47 lead with less than five seconds left.

But because less than five seconds remained, Jack didn't have to inbound the ball. Jack knew the rule and junior post Zac Rossetti reminded him for good measure.

Once the seconds dwindled, the No. 1-seeded Wilsonville boys basketball team had officially defeated La Salle 49-47 in the semifinals of the 5A state tournament Thursday, March 9 in Corvallis and sealed its third consecutive berth in the 5A state title game.

"I was thinking 'Hold onto it because they can't win if we don't inbound,'" Jack said.

"That was an incredibly smart play because we're up two and if they get a steal and throw in a three we lose. That was a great play," Wilsonville head coach Chris Roche said.

Wilsonville will play No. 2-seeded Churchill in the state title game Friday, March 10 at 8:30 p.m. at Gill Coliseum. Wilsonville senior wing Harrison Steiger led the Wildcats with 19 points while senior wing Zach Reichle added 14 points.

"It's a great feeling but I don't want to be satisfied yet. We're gonna try to get ready for our next opponent, give it our all because whoever we play is gonna be a really good team," Jack said before Wilsonville found out it would play Churchill.

Meanwhile, La Salle will play Parkrose in the third place game on Friday at 3:15 p.m. Against Wilsonville, La Salle point guard Jonah Pemberton scored 25 points while Burns added nine points.

"It's not where we wanted to be. It's not what we worked so hard for, to lose in the semifinals, but that's the way it was. I wanted to see them on the other side of the bracket so we could have maybe met them in the final, but that's how the season went and where our rankings left us. So, you've just got to play the game that's there," La Salle head coach Sean Christensen said.

Two of Wilsonville's closest regular season games came against the Falcons. The Wildcats beat La Salle 63-50 after trailing by one points at halftime in their first matchup Jan. 20 and escaped with a 50-46 road victory Feb. 17 despite trailing in the fourth quarter.

Coach Roche said he subscribes to the axiom that beating a team is more arduous the more times you play them.

"I believe that because there becomes a sense of 'Oh no lets not blow this' and the other team is like 'Lets get them.' It's school yard stuff but it's emotion. You don't want to have beaten a team in the summer and twice in the season and then lose in the tournament," he said.

And the Falcons established early on that they would not lose without a fight. La Salle jumped out to a 7-0 lead early and forced Roche to call a timeout. Wilsonville responded with a 10-0 run but the game was nip-and-tuck throughout the first half and La Salle entered halftime with a 19-17 lead.

Though much shorter than Reichle, La Salle guard Ange Toku defended the Oregon State signee tough in in the post during the first half and received ample help via double teams. Wilsonville made just 37 percent of its shots in the first two quarters while Pemberton scored a game-high eight first half points.

"It's just a matter of me making the right read and kicking it out. In the second half we figured out that I had to go vertical instead of into him," Reichle said.

Despite the nail-biter of a fourth quarter, Wilsonville won the game in the third quarter. The Wildcats stifled Pemberton and Burns defensively and allowed just three third quarter points. Meanwhile, Steiger ascended for a dunk, switched hands for a high difficulty lay-up and scored eight third quarter points. Wilsonville led 29-22 entering the fourth quarter.

"Just a guy who understood he had advantages when we reversed the ball and a guy who's been playing long enough to know when to attack. He's such a great athlete. He's so smart. He was huge today. If he doesn't play like that, that's a hard team to beat," Roche said of Steiger.

"I don't know what other people were thinking. I wasn't really worried. A lot of people haven't played in games like that … and I think people might have got a little nervous. But I'm supposed to be the floor general, so it never should have gotten out of hands," Pemberton said. "One of our coaches tells us to win every quarter. We didn't win the third quarter, so we lost the game."

Nevertheless, Pemberton and La Salle would take the game to the final seconds.

Pemberton blitzed the Wildcats' defense off the dribble in the fourth quarter, scored inside, made a flurry of midrange shots and scored 15 points in the final 4:03 of the game. If Reichle, Pemberton's primary defender, could play the quarter over again he would have checked him at halfcourt instead of allowing Pemberton to get a head of steam.

"I should have picked him up way earlier than I did. When I do pick him up early he has to do a lot more work," Reichle said.

Led by Wilsonville junior point guard Caleb Larsen, the Wildcats didn't commit turnovers against La Salle's full court press late and the Wildcats made 12-of-18 free throws in the game — most of which came in the fourth quarter.

"They were down and had to go in total attack mode. And when you have a lead there is an element of trying to protect it. I thought our guys did a great job of finishing the game. We didn't make every free throw or every play but we made enough and defensively we didn't get many stops but we did enough," coach Roche said.

In the game's final sequence, Roche made 1-of-2 free throws to give Wilsonville a 49-45 lead, Burns scored off an offensive rebound and then Jack ran the clock out along the baseline.

Pemberton gave his team a chance to win but the Falcons ultimately fell short.

"If you're not first, you're last, in my opinion. Nobody remembers who finished second, third or fourth. They remember who won. We're playing on the last day, and I want to win Friday and end my high school career on a win, but it hurts," Pemberton said.

Of his team's approach heading into Friday's state title game, coach Roche said: "I want them to have fun, enjoy every moment but compete their tails off. That's who we want to be all the time."

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Wilsonville senior wing Harrison Steiger led the Wildcats with 19 points against La Salle.

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Wilsonville sophomore guard Jack Roche ran the clock out with the Wildcats up by two and under five seconds left.

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Wilsonville junior point guard Caleb Larsen (right) led the Wildcats' press break late in the game.