Boys basketball: North Marion is building experience
The No. 8 North Marion boys basketball team is a tale of two teams.
On one side is a team that has been outscored by a combined 89 points in losses to No. 1 Banks, No. 2 Marshfield, No. 4 Valley Catholic and No. 10 Tillamook. On the other side is a Husky team that has shown a lot of grit and toughness in winning its other four games, including a 63-61 victory over Portland Christian in the first round of the Salem Academy Tournament on Thursday.
Together, the two teams paint a picture of a North Marion team that is not yet ready to go toe-to-toe against the state's elite programs just yet, but has all the pieces to give themselves the opportunity to do so in the postseason this year.
"We've played a brutal schedule, which is good," North Marion head coach Tully Wagner said. "But we need to battle a little bit better against the top-tier teams, and teams that we're better than, we need to be able to put away."
Such was the case against the 3A Portland Christian Lions (6-4, 2-1 Lewis & Clark) in a game that the Huskies led until the final minute when the Lions took a late lead, prompting North Marion to pull out the victory on a game-winning 3-pointer by Grant Henry.
"We led most of the way, but never were able to push it out over 10," Wagner said.
The Huskies held the Lions at arm's length for much of the game, led by 16 first-half points from sophomore forward Sergio Jimenez. But the Lions roared back in the final quarter, cutting an eight-point deficit down to one on a putback offensive rebound that turned into a three-point play.
Portland Christian forced a North Marion turnover on the ensuing possession and scored to take a 61-60 lead with 40 seconds left.
"They were trapping and playing up tempo most of the game, which we were able to beat easily in the first half," Wagner said. "Then as we got tired we started turning the ball over a little bit more."
The Huskies responded with a final possession that moved the ball between all five players, culminating in a 3-point shot by Henry that the junior guard drained with 2.9 seconds left on the clock. The Lions had enough time to take one last attempt, but North Marion's defense forced them into a desperation shot from halfcourt that missed the mark, giving the Huskies their fourth win in their last six games.
Jimenez finished the game with a team-high 20 points, followed by 16 from senior Trevor Ensign. Junior Jared Hauser came off the bench to contribute 12, and Henry finished with 11 points.
The only two losses in their recent streak have been to the top two teams in the state. Against the rest, North Marion has showed steady improvement since a season-opening loss to the No. 10 Tillamook Cheesemakers, particularly on defense.
"We started the season as a pretty poor defensive team and we've turned into a pretty solid defensive team," Wagner said. "Offensively it's taken us a little bit longer, but I think that we've gotten better offensively over the last week and a half of practice, and I'm hoping that we see that in a lot of games."
With just a handful of matches left before the conference schedule begins in January, the Huskies have a few opportunities to fine tune their system before hosting No. 3 Newport (6-4) in the Oregon West opener on Jan. 16.
For the past four seasons, the Oregon West Conference has been the playground of the Philomath Warriors, who have gone 36-4 while capturing league titles in all four years. But Wagner thinks this year could be very different.
"Our league is wide open this year," Wagner said. "And we always say that, but this year it's more so than usual."
Philomath is off 4-4 start just like North Marion, and only three games separates league-leading Newport from fifth-place Stayton at 3-6. When the teams start feasting on each other in two weeks, there will be very few clear cut favorites on a weekly basis.
"Night in and night out it's going to be a battle," Wagner said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see our league champion have three losses in league. There's just that much of an even playing field this year."
That uncertainty breeds an opportunity for the right team, and Wagner is looking to make sure that the Huskies are in a position to be that team at the end of the season.
All that experience against top-ranked teams, with more to come in the pre-season schedule, has a dual-effect of giving North Marion a boost in its strength of schedule for the end of the year OSAA rankings while giving the team much-needed experience of going up against top-tier programs.
With a lot of practice and a little luck, the Huskies could find themselves at the end of the season not just ranked among the elites, but as one of them.
"Our goal is a league championship," Wagner said. "It's our goal each year, so we're hoping to break through and win a lot of tight ones, because there's going to be some."