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Defense, passing and transition game fuel Lions' Wednesday rout of Hillsboro

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: JOHN BREWINGTON - St. Helens' Joe Rae flies in to score against Hillsboro during his team's 76-44 home win over the Spartans on Wednesday.Basketball was fun for the St. Helens boys on Wednesday. Especially the way they played it in the first half.

The Lions outscored the visiting Hillsboro Spartans 34-8 in a span of 10 minutes, 5 seconds and went on to win 76-44 at St. Helens High School.

"It was a good time," point guard Drake Dow said. "I mean, it's always a good time, but it's more fun when you're winning."

The Lions didn't have to stress about the winning part. Their execution at both ends was that good.

"It all started on the defensive end," Dow said. "Then we got out in transition and things were coming pretty easy. That's what we've been trying to do all year. It's slowly getting better and better, and tonight it clicked."

Dow and others not only scored, they moved the ball crisply, feeding big men Jacob Falk and Owen Wolfe with sharp passes for lots of close-range shots and points.

"We've got two of the best big guys in the state so we're going to give them the ball," Dow said.

The victory gave St. Helens sole possession of fourth place in the Northwest Oregon Conference at 4-4 (10-8 overall), with Sandy and Putnam both losing and falling to 3-5. Hillsboro fell to 2-6 in league play (6-12 overall).

The top three teams in the conference all won on Wednesday. Wilsonville (8-0 in league) defeated visiting Milwaukie 60-51, La Salle Prep (6-2) won at Sandy 57-43 and Parkrose (6-2) downed visiting Putnam 64-61.

The Lions now will have two key NWOC matchups — they will host Putnam at 7:15 p.m. Friday, then travel to Parkrose for a 7:15 p.m. Tuesday game.

"Our goal is to win every game from here on out," St. Helens coach Jordan Massinger said. "Parkrose will be really tough at their house — they're the most athletic team in our league, by far. Wilsonville is going to be really tough here. Sandy is going to come out and play us really tough. Every night's going to be a battle.

"But if we can go 4-2 or even 3-3 the rest of the way, I'm going to be proud of these guys — we just need to keep competing every night."

Wednesday's win over the Spartans avenged a 55-49 loss at Hillsboro in St. Helens' league opener. The Lions also lost at Putnam, 53-52, as they started 0-2 in the NWOC.

"We owe Putnam one," Massinger said. "We were down 13-1 to them, then came back and had a lead. They took it back and finished strong. They're a solid team, but I think we can take them if we play hard."

Playing hard even when things weren't going their way was part of the St. Helens mantra on Wednesday. The Lions trailed 8-3, then 12-8 before closing the first quarter with a 7-0 run.

St. Helens scored the first basket of the second quarter to go up, 17-12. Another 9-0 run early in the second frame put the Lions up 26-15.

Then, after a couple of Spartan free throws, the Lions unleashed a 16-2 spurt that gave them a 42-20 halftime lead.

That four-minute spree included back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers by Dow, junior Jacob Erceg and senior guard Trenton Minich.

St. Helens wound up with 27 points in what Massinger called "one of our better quarters."

"Everybody was getting everybody excited," Wolfe said of the second quarter. "Everybody was congratulating each other, and we kept things moving really well."

Wolfe said the Lions were determined to get a win this time against Hillsboro.

"That was a hard loss for us (on Jan. 5) and we didn't want to let that happen again," he said.

Added Dow: "We played kind of scared that first game against them and didn't play a lot of defense."

Aggressive defense has been a key when the Lions do well.

"The past four or five weeks, we've been trying to play tenacious defense, get in the passing lanes," Massinger said.

The coach noted the value of Dow's leadership as part of an experienced senior crew.

"Drake plays 32 minutes every game," Massinger said. "He hurt his ankle really badly versus Sandy a couple weeks ago so he's not even 100 percent (but) he's giving us everything he has. Imagine him fully healthy — that would be another level we could rise to. But that's what this year has been about, guys getting injured and the next man stepping up, and us adjusting."

The third quarter Wednesday was a foul-filled grind, but Hillsboro didn't even make a dent in the Lions' lead, the Spartans trailing 54-35 going into the fourth quarter.

St. Helens then recaptured some of its flow and magic, making a final push that resulted in the final 32-point margin — bigger than in any win over at least the past four seasons.

"We were pumped up tonight," Wolfe said.

Falk, the team's big (6-foot-6) lefty, led the scoring with 22 points. The 6-7 Wolfe and 5-9 Dow each had 13 points.

"The guards were doing a great job getting the ball inside," Wolfe said. "It's impossible for us to score if our guards aren't doing their job."

The only non-senior to start, sophomore Joe Rea, had 15 points.

"He's going to be really good," Wolfe said. "We mess with him sometimes, but he's a good player, especially for his age. He's really helped us."

St. Helens has had other big stretches in games this season. The Lions trailed La Salle Prep by 28 points on Jan. 3, then outscored the Falcons 32-3 to get a lead. St. Helens forced 17 turnovers in the second half.

Wednesday's performance came on the heels of a good showing last Friday at Wilsonville, the No. 5 Class 5A team in the Oregon School Activities Association rankings, but a game in which the Lions committed 24 turnovers to the Wildcats' half-dozen or so.

The Wildcats were able to get up 18 shots more from the field than St. Helens and won 67-49, despite a career-high scoring night for Minich, who posted 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting (3 of 4 from beyond the arc).

"They beat our butts in the second quarter, but the rest of the game we were able to go toe-to-toe with them," Massinger said.

Every St. Helens starter now has scored 20 or more points in a game this season, with the one-two punch of Wolfe and Falk (37 points, 15 rebounds against Parkrose) the biggest threat.

"When Jake and I are aggressive, it's pretty hard to stop us," Wolfe said.

What does a performance like Wednesday's mean and bode for the future?

"A lot of wins," Dow said. "That's the plan."

It's lofty thinking for a St. Helens program that finished 2-12 in league last season (after going a combined 4-32 in league the previous three seasons), but these Lions hope they're on to something.

"The past few years, we've been very charitable, giving (other teams) wins," Massinger said. "We want to be a little greedier this year, in a good way, of course."

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