PREPS: Demos hone their championship plan
A season ago, the Jefferson Democrats were a bit of a surprise at the Class 6A boys basketball tournament.
A young team with plenty of perimeter pop, Jefferson entered the 2016 postseason seeded 13th, then gave West Linn its toughest challenge, falling by six points in the semifinals to the Lions, who went on to win their fourth consecutive title.
This year the Democrats are the team to beat in the Oregon School Activities Association showcase at Chiles Center. The first quarterfinal will have the top-seeded Demos facing Portland Interscholastic League rival Grant at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
It will be the their fourth meeting this season. The Democrats won the first three — one in the Les Schwab Invitational and two league contests. The teams feature five of the eight players voted to the all-PIL team: Jefferson's Geno West (PIL player of the year), Kamaka Hepa, Thomas Miles and Marcus Tsohonis and Grant's Kelton Samore.
Jefferson's 66-45 win in the most recent meeting was the largest margin.
Grant coach Robert Key says it feels strange to see an
opponent for a fourth time. To beat the Democrats, Key says his Generals will need to play smart basketball, be more efficient on offense, tougher on defense and limit Jefferson's transition opportunities.
Jefferson coach Pat Strickland says he expected Grant to be one of the eight remaining teams. His message to his team is that the tournament requires toughness and focus no matter the opponent.
"We've just got to control what is in our control and come out and play with intensity," Strickland says. "We always have that target on our backs at Jefferson. These guys have bought in to playing defense and rebounding and playing for the guy next to them. If they continue to do that, we have a chance to make some dreams come true."
Besides experience — Jefferson reached the semifinals last season with the same core — the ingredient Jefferson most missed at the end of last season was an inside presence.
"Last year in the state tournament, and all season long, really, we were predominately a perimeter team," Strickland says. "In the state tournament, I don't remember us scoring very many points in the paint. Now we have a post presence, and hopefully getting points in the paint can put us over the top."
That post presence is provided largely by Hepa, a 6-9 junior transfer from Alaska who has fit in well with Jefferson's high-speed style while providing consistent rebounding and a defensive presence around the basket.
In the playoffs, Hepa has played more with his back to the basket. That could help these Democrats realize their highest potential.
"He has to be a versatile guy for us," Strickland says.
The Democrats need Hepa to be a rim protector and rebound collector on the defensive end.
Tsohonis says Hepa's presence has significantly improved Jefferson's half-court defense.
"It's a big difference, because if we get beat off the dribble he's always there to help and clean the shot off the backboard," Tsohonis says.
Hepa averages six blocked shots and a team-high 12 rebounds per game. His defensive rebounding allows Jefferson to ramp up its fast-break offense.
The difference from 2016 for Jefferson is about more than one big transfer. Those guards who were difficult for opponents to handle last season are bigger, stronger and even more savvy.
West, a first-team all-tournament selection as a junior last season, notes that Jefferson's guards also do their share of rebounding.
"Getting rebounds is all about toughness. Grit and grind," West says.
Part of Jefferson's game is pressure defense. Keeping that intensity while avoiding unnecessary fouls will be part of the championship plan.
"We're more experienced," West says, describing the type of defense needed in the tournament as "get up on people. Make it hard for them to execute. Be in the passing lanes."
One constant this season for the Democrats has been strong third quarters. In both of their first- and second-round playoff wins, a big third quarter keyed Jefferson's victory. Same with their 21-point win at Grant on Feb. 17.
Strickland credits his team with responding to halftime adjustments and finding renewed focus.
"In the third quarter, we've been getting really good play all season," Strickland says. "I told the guys that this week we need that same big quarter in all four quarters."
Grant, seeded No. 9, was the only team outside the top eight to crack the state tournament, as the first two rounds played out close to the script predicted by seeding.
A culture of commitment is the main reason a Grant team with sophomores in important roles reached the tournament, Key says. He talks about trust and togetherness and credits the three seniors for providing leadership despite having younger teammates in more prominent roles.
"It's a very fun group to coach," Key says.
Key likes that his team is battle tested. One example was six games in December and January without injured sophomore point guard Aaron Deloney, a stretch that included three losses at Schwab. The result was a stronger rotation and valuable experience for junior Damon Hickok running the point.
Grant called upon all of its experiences during Friday's tense, 74-72 win at Sprague to earn a fourth shot at Jefferson.
The Generals had a seven-point lead with two minutes left and were cool enough to survive a final push from the Olympians. Critical was hitting 12 of 15 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Not that long ago, free-throw shooting was a bit of an adventure for Grant. In a double-overtime win on Feb. 14 at Madison, the Generals were 25 for 47 from the foul line. That performance convinced Key to turn up the pressure on free-throw shooting drills — and the improvement is a big reason Grant has reached the quarterfinals.
"I'm very pleased with our composure," Key says.