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PREPS: Young Benson girls, coming on strong, upend Lincoln -- and will go for more

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Benson High’s very young girls basketball team is coming on strong.

And Tech coach Eric Knox wasn’t the least bit surprised when his team — third in the Portland Interscholastic League — knocked off second-place Lincoln 42-35 Saturday on the Cardinals’ home floor.

Knox had suggested three nights earlier that his girls might be ready to catch the Cards and avenge a 45-38 Jan. 7 loss to Lincoln.

“We were up by eight points at home in that game with three minutes left, and then we became freshmen at the wrong time,” Knox said last Wednesday, after Benson’s 73-41 runaway PIL victory at Cleveland. In the final minutes, as the pressure increased, “we froze,” he says.

In Saturday’s rematch, things were much different. Benson — which uses six freshmen, two sophomores and a junior — picked up where it left off at Cleveland. The Techsters led Lincoln by eight to 12 points much of the way.

“We played ‘em tough, real tough, and controlled that game from start to finish,” Knox says.

While Benson likes to press and run, the Techsters were able to win a more methodical, defensive game that had a lot riding on it.

“Our defense was suffocating,” Knox says. “We just wanted to keep Lincoln uncomfortable the whole way, and I think we accomplished that. But they weren’t too shabby defensively, either.”

Zahira Ahmed, a 5-10 junior, led Benson with 12 points, as Tech showed the kind of scoring balance it has had all season.

“I think offensively our athleticism prevailed,” Knox says of Saturday’s game. “We’ve had to win by committee every night, and we’ve had a different kid step up offensively for us practically every game.”

At Cleveland, 5-11 freshman Ciera Ellington paced Tech with 16 points, seven steals and five rebounds. But 5-6 sophomore Avalyn Revels sank four 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 12 points, and three freshmen — 5-3 Makenzy Porter, 5-5 Dai-Auzhane Morris and 5-4 Mahogany Menefee, combined for 28 points and 16 rebounds.

The Cleveland game showed Knox something.

“I thought it was going to be a dogfight, but something clicked in them,” he says of his girls. “They just decided they wanted to play as a group.”

His team has had club basketball experience the past few years with Holla Hoops, a group Knox founded, and the teamwork on the high school level has been coming. Knox demands no less, and says it’s time others take notice and recognize what his girls, and other black players in Portland and Oregon, can do with their games.

“Oregon undersells black kids. It settles for less. It lowers the bar on black kids,” he says. “And we at Benson want to change that trend. We want to say, ‘These kids have fundamentals. You can’t just call us an athletic team. We’re fundamentally sound, disciplined … and athletic.’”

Knox says he doesn’t like seeing many black kids “get reffed, perceived and typecast” in such a limited way.

“I played on black teams in Los Angeles that were able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he says.

The Benson girls varsity, with its youth, is still a work in progress. But the Techsters have 15 wins overall this season, after going 2-18 on the Class 5A level in Knox’s first year at the helm (2013-14) and 7-17 at 6A last season.

“We have this saying: Hard work beats talent when talent refuses to work hard,” Knox says. “Against Lincoln, we put our talent and hard work together, and prevailed.

“These girls understand the principle that the whole is great than the parts.”

Benson is 9-2 in its last 11 games, with both losses to league-leading Grant. And now the Techsters have a shot to catch Lincoln in the PIL standings. Saturday’s victory boosted Tech to 9-3 in league. Grant is 13-0, Lincoln 11-2.

Benson has four games left in the regular season —  two on the road this week (Roosevelt at Lincoln on Tuesday, at Franklin on Friday) and then two at home the following week (Wilson on Feb. 23 and Cleveland on Feb. 24).

Lincoln still has a game left against Grant.

“Who would have thought we could finish second in the PIL this year?” Knox says. “I knew it was possible. I just didn’t think it was probable.”

Benson already is ahead of Lincoln in the Oregon School Activities Association rankings. Tech is 15-5 overall and rated No. 18 in 6A. The Cardinals (13-8) are No. 22. Grant (16-4) is 11th.

The top four PIL finishers automatically qualify for the OSAA state playoffs. The rankings determine seeding. And Knox, again, doesn’t want to put a ceiling on what his players might be able to pull off, despite their relative inexperience.

“I honestly believe we’re good enough to win a state championship … and we’re young enough to not even make the playoffs,” he says.

After Saturday, the latter scenario isn’t possible.