Lions sink nationally ranked Lakers when it matters
One side's agony was the other side's sheer joy Friday at the Rose Garden.
West Linn's spine-tingling 37-36 victory over No. 1-ranked Lake Oswego in the Class 6A semifinals may not have been an artistic masterpiece, with each team barely mustering a point a minute.
Doesn't matter one lick to the Lions.
"It feels great," said West Linn's Ryan Shearmire, whose post-up layup with 20 seconds left was the basket that sent the Lions into Saturday night's championship game. "There was nobody who thought we could beat (the Lakers) except for us."
As he met with media afterward, the 6-5 junior good-naturedly admonished a reporter who had predicted in a radio interview that the Lakers would claim the top prize.
And really, who could argue? The Lakers, with the state's premier player in Calvin Hermanson, a 27-0 record, only two single-digit victories all season and a No. 8 USA Today national ranking, were a prohibitive favorite to win it all.
"From the very beginning of the year, we knew the state title went through them," Shearmire said. "There are people at school who were telling us that we weren't better than them, other coaches one of my best friends is on L.O. team. He was saying, 'You guys are good, but you're not better than we are.' We showed them."
Lake Oswego had beaten West Linn twice handily in the regular season, 68-55 and 81-59. This time, the Lions took the air out of the ball at times, winning despite making only 14 field goals in 32 minutes.
"We did a great job of shortening up the game," said coach Eric Vluhkola, in his fifth year at the West Linn helm after a year as Mike Doherty's right-hand man at Oregon City. "That gives less touches for Calvin.
"(The Lakers) haven't had a lot of close games this season. They boat-raced us twice. We said we want to make it tight and come down the stretch, and they're going to feel the pressure."
Actually, the Lions were the ones who seemed to feel the pressure after taking a 33-26 lead into the fourth quarter. They scored only four points in the final period -- two free throws by Shearmire with 3:31 remaining to push them back ahead 35-33, then his game-winning shot. That came after Hermanson, who finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, gave the Lakers a 36-35 advantage on a driving layup with 1:22 to play.
Shearmire was able to knock down the winning shot with one part muscle, one part determination.
"That's why you're in the weight room in the middle of July when nobody is watching," he said. "That's why you put in the time, so you can make a play like that."
The Lions had used man-to-man defense in their two losses to Lake Oswego during the regular season. On Friday, they employed a zone until the final two minutes, holding the Lakers to .395 shooting, including 1 for 12 from 3-point range.
"We used a buzz 2-3 and a 1-2-2, just to confuse them and keep everybody in front of us," said Vluhkola.
The zone helped West Linn keep a handle on the 6-6 Hermanson, who scored eight points in the first six minutes but was swarmed by defenders after that.
"Our thing was, any time he touches, we have to double him," Vluhkola said. "But he was making some tough shots -- unbelievable shots."
"We wanted to mix it up on them, not let them get comfortable," Sheamire said. "The last thing you want is Calvin getting comfortable."
Two years ago, West Linn had beaten Lake Oswego in a game that determined a spot in the final eight at state.
"We had a motto," Shearmire said. "We only had to beat them once. We beat them when it counted, just like two years ago."
Vluhkola has defeated the Lakers four times in his five years. Still, the Lakers are the standard by which Three Rivers League teams are judged.
"They've won a lot of league titles," Vluhkova said. "We're just trying to find our niche. Everybody put them on this pedestal, (saying) no on can touch them, they're ranked nationally."
Lake Oswego might be the state's tallest team, going 6-6, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3 with the starting five. West Linn -- with only one senior starter and a freshman, 5-11 Payton Pritchard, at point guard -- is shorter across the board.
"They're athletic and bigger and stronger than we are, and they're long," Vlukhova said. "We're young, but we kept saying we're more skilled. We have guys who can put the ball on the floor better. We have better shooters.
"We wanted to make it a skill game. Before, we tried to play regular style and they'd just punch us in. (Friday) we were going to shorten the game and make them work."
At a West Linn preseason team retreat, the players had bounced around several goals -- winning the league, getting to the state semifinals, etc.
"Ryan, who is one of our captains, stopped everyone and said, 'Really, the only goal that matters is we want to win a state title,' " Vlukhova said. "That's been our goal the whole time."
Now the Lions are on the precipice. Shearmire can hardly wait for the opportunity to hang a championship banner in the school gym.
"We were a power in the '90s," he said. "For about 10 years, as a kid growing up, I watched us lose to teams like Putnam and Oregon City. Every day in P.E., I see that '97 banner. We want to have one of our own."
The Lakers won't have one this year, after a season that stopped two wins short of perfection. The Lions saw to that on a day in which they grabbed bragging rights, and then some.