West Linn beats three of the top-five teams in the state, including undefeated Lake Oswego, by a combined six points to win its first basketball state title since 1997

by: VERN UYETAKE - The West Linn boys basketball team storms the court in the moments following its victory over Central Catholic and the state title game on Saturday.Back in December, before the West Linn boys basketball team had even played a game, coach Eric Viuhkola gathered his team and had each individual talk about what his goals were for the upcoming season.

Players talked about wanting to challenge Lake Oswego for the league title again and to get back to the Rose Garden. That's when junior post Ryan Shearmire stepped in.

“He stopped everyone and said, the only goal is to win the state title. That's been the goal the whole time,” Viuhkola said.

It was a lofty goal to be sure and one that was certainly on the Lions' radar, having one of the most innately talented young teams in the state. But surely not this year. A third straight Rose Garden appearance and perhaps another trip to the semifinals would be a terrific showing for the rejuvenated program.

But to win the 2013 title, you had to go through Lake Oswego. The 2012 runner-ups who returned everyone, who were nationally ranked, possessed the defending state player of the year and who looked like a bulldozer and every bit worth the hype in preseason play.

And if some calamity befell the Lakers during the year? Senior heavy teams like Jesuit, Grant or Central Catholic were ready to swoop in.

Next year. Next year the Lions could up the stakes in the preseason and gun for the school's second ever boys state basketball championship.

Well next year came early for West Linn.

In a tournament marked by physical, bruising defensive play, the Lions used their newfound toughness, unwavering confidence and, frankly, a bit of luck, to pull off a stunning three-game run, toppling Grant, Lake Oswego and Central Catholic, three teams with earlier wins over West Linn this year, to capture the trophy.

It was an incredible three days for the Lions and for the West Linn community as the team won three games against the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 teams in the state by a combined six points. Now the banner of the 1997 championship team will have some company.

“I look at that banner in practice every day and I just knew we wanted to get one of our own,” Shearmire said moments after cutting down his portion of the net on Saturday night.

West Linn's tournament started on Wednesday afternoon with a difficult test against No. 4 Grant. The Generals had beaten the Lions in the first game of the season, jumping out to a huge first-half lead which West Linn never fully recovered from.

But both teams had changed considerably since that contest and the game figured to be one of the most entertaining of the day.

The Lions showed some early jitters, missing on their long-range attempts while being unable to get a break on some good looks in the paint. Both teams played strong interior defense and the Lions more than held their own on the boards, something that had concerned Viuhkola heading into the contest.

However, a pair of sloppy turnovers late in the first quarter led to five quick points from the Generals to finish off a 7-0 run, giving Grant a 15-8 lead.

West Linn continued to struggle from the field early in the second quarter, even missing an open lay-up but the Lions stayed within striking distance with strong defense, including a pair of key blocks by Shearmire and Jarrod Howard.

“There's just something different at this venue that affects how you shoot. We tried to tell the guys just to shoot normally,” Viuhkola said.

Grant led 22-13 with less than two minutes to play in the half but the Lions closed on a crucial 7-1 run. After a bucket from Shearmire, Hayden Coppedge drilled a three-pointer, the team's first of the game. Then, after Grant split a pair of free throws with seven seconds left, Shearmire scored on a nice feed from Payton Pritchard to cut the lead to 23-20 at the half.

West Linn opened the second half by finally knocking down some shots. Coppedge hit another three-pointer and a pair of free throws from Pritchard gave the Lions their first lead of the game at 27-25.

Early in the quarter, Grant's Deiondre Bird would be forced to leave the game after his forehead was cut in a collision.

Grant would rally back and the teams would then trade hoops with Shearmire and Tay Arigbon going back and forth.

The Generals would still lead 40-38 with one quarter to play but the Generals were in foul trouble as was Shearmire, who had been whistled for his third.

Two big blocks from Shearmire sparked the Lions in the quarter and a put-back by Coppedge helped West Linn regain the lead.

Bird would return for the Generals and immediately made his presence felt, becoming the team's go-to player in crunch time.

West Linn had a chance to extend its advantage but missed three out of four free throws. A three-pointer by Grant's Theo Freidman gave the Generals a 48-47 lead with 2:04 remaining. Shearmire then split two free throws to tie the game with 1:52 remaining.

Grant tried to be cautious, holding the ball with under two minutes to play. However, Howard came up with a huge steal with one minute left and got the ball to Shearmire who was fouled again.

Shearmire went 1-for-2 again, giving the Lions a 49-48 edge.

Grant turned to Bird again who was fouled and hit both shots with 43 seconds remaining.

On West Linn's possession, Howard drove the lane but his driving lay-up attempt just rolled off the rim and a jump-ball gave possession to Grant.

On the inbounds pass, West Linn came up with another crucial steal and called time-out with 8.5 seconds remaining.

The Lions got the ball in and Howard's shot attempt was block. Howard got his own rebound and Grant was then whistled for a controversial foul with 3.6 seconds left.

To that point, Howard had been heroic for the Lions on defense but had yet to score a point and had missed his only free throw attempt of the day.

Howard, the team's lone senior starter, was often the forgotten man in West Linn's rotation this year, often taking a back seat on offense to the team's other prolific scorers.

“I hadn't done much all game so I was thinking that maybe it was my turn,” Howard said.

He stepped to the line in the raucous Rose Garden with the season on the brink and calmly knocked down the first shot with a swish.

“I had (butterflies) at first but then when I got the ball in my hands I felt good. I knew it was my last year and I needed to get it done for this team,” Howard said.

Then he did the same with his second, forcing Grant to go the length of the court in less than four seconds for a final shot attempt.

The Generals wouldn't even get that as they attempted a half-court pass that Howard intercepted sealing West Linn's victory.

“I'd go to war with Jarrod every day. He gives every drill and every play everything he has. He's just a flat-out winner,” Viuhkola said.

Shearmire ended the game with 19 points and five blocks, Coppedge added 15 points while Howard had 11 rebounds and eight steals.

After the game, Viuhkola needed a moment to compose himself before addressing his team in the locker room.

“It was emotional because this team has come so far from where we started this summer just in terms of togetherness. We weren't playing the way I wanted us to and, in these past five weeks, this has become one of the most favorite teams I've ever coached,” Viuhkola said.

The win set up a semifinal rematch against as familiar an opponent as the Lions have seen in the past few years.

West Linn now faced No. 1 Lake Oswego, a team that entered the tournament undefeated and with a pair of lopsided wins over the Lions in the regular season and a win over West Linn in last year's state tournament.

However, in the team's past two games, the top-10 nationally ranked Lakers looked somewhat vulnerable, having struggled into the fourth quarter in wins over Tigard and Southridge.

The teams started the game with confidence. Calvin Hermanson had early success against West Linn's man-to-man defense, scoring eight points and assisting on another basket as the Lakers jumped out to a 12-7 lead, capitalizing on a string of West Linn turnovers.

Coppedge had seven of his nine points in the first quarter and his lay-up on an assist from Pritchard tied the game at 12-12.

Lake Oswego then missed a pair of free throws and Anthony Mathis drained a jumper at the end of the quarter to give the Lions the lead.

“I've been saying all along that we could beat them. In two games this year we got boat-raced by them so we tried to spread them out and make five passes before attacking,” Viuhkola said.

West Linn would switch to a zone defense in the second quarter and it instantly started to bottle up the Lakers' offense.

“We knew everything ran through Calvin and so we went to a 2-1-2 zone and just tried to limit the looks we gave their shooters,” Viuhkola said.

Lake Oswego only scored two points in the first five minutes of play and went 0-for-7 on three-pointers in the first half.

“We just tried to make everything difficult for them,” Pritchard said.

West Linn built an 18-14 lead but had its own struggles against the state's top defense, missing a lay-up which hindered the team's momentum.

Howard also picked up his third foul in the second quarter, sending him to the bench.

Lake Oswego cut the lead to one point late in the half but a strong drive by Ty Cleland gave the Lions a 20-17 lead at the half.

After an early three-pointer by Pritchard, Lake Oswego responded with six straight points to tie the game.

Pritchard, who relished his role as a distributor for much of the tournament, scored eight points, including another three-pointer, in the third quarter to pace the Lions' offense.

“I saw them backing off me a bit and I started looking for my shot,” Prithcard said.

A pretty drive from Pritchard made it 30-26 and, after a defensive stop, West Linn held the ball for the final 1:10 of the period. That possession ended with a contested, fadeaway three-pointer that Mathis drilled, giving the Lions their biggest lead of the game with one quarter to play.

The Lions continued to play conservatively to open the final quarter as Lake Oswego upped its pressure on defense. The Lakers forced turnovers and caused the Lions to burn all but one time-out.

Colin Caslick hit Lake Oswego's first three-pointer of the game to tie the score at 33-33. The 7-0 run may have been a blessing in disguise for the Lions as it forced the team to get aggressive on offense again.

Shearmire responded by getting fouled on a shot attempt and draining both free throws. Lake Oswego then split a pair of foul shots with 2:16 remaining. Free throws were a huge sticking point for the Lakers in the game. While the Lions hit all four of their attempts, Lake Oswego was just 5-for-11.

“They hadn't played in a lost of close games this year so we were hoping they'd feel the pressure,” Viuhkola said.

Lake Oswego would regain possession following a pair of 10-second violation calls on the Lions and Hermanson would then score on a nice drive, giving Lake Oswego a 36-35 lead with 1:20 to play.

West Linn would miss on its next possession but Howard recorded another huge steal.

After another squandered chance, West Linn would steal the inbounds pass with 39 seconds left and got the ball to Shearmire, who came through with a runner in traffic with 20 seconds late.

Following a time-out, Lake Oswego put the ball in Hermanson's hands and cleared out. Hermanson attempted a deep three-pointer that missed and a jump-ball gave possession to the Lakers under the basket with 2.2 seconds remaining.

Lake Oswego's inbound pass was tipped and snared by Pritchard as the clock run out, sparking a huge celebration for what was perhaps the biggest upset of the season in the state.

Hermanson ended the game with 20 points for Lake Oswego while Mathis had 10 for the Lions. Pritchard had eight points and six assists.

West Linn then had just 24 hours to recover from an incredibly emotional win to prepare for its shot at a state title.

The Lions took on Central Catholic, a team also coming off an emotional win over a rival, having topped No. 2 Jesuit on Friday.

“Last year we beat Central Catholic here and I think our goal was just to be playing on Friday and Saturday which we did. This year we wanted to finish,” Viuhkola said.

West Linn looked loose in warm-ups, joking around with each other and attempting trick shots.

“With this group, I've just had to take a step back. I was so intense as a player but they're always kidding around right up until game time,” Viuhkola said.

But nerves showed in the opening minutes as the Lions were way off on their outside shot attempts in the first quarter.

Central Catholic went up 5-0 and fed the ball to post Austin Dyer early. Dyer had nine of the Rams' 11 points in the first quarter and staked his team to an 11-9 lead.

Once again West Linn would switch to its zone defense and benefited from the Rams going cold from the three-point line. However, after struggling against him earlier, Dyer didn't attempt a shot in the second quarter.

“He's a great player and we gave up some good looks to him early,” Shearmire said.

The Lions missed a handful of shots from close range but still managed to grab the lead early in the period. West Linn also struggled from the foul line but, after a free throw miss, the Lions grabbed the offensive rebound and got the ball to Shearmire for a baseline three-pointer.

Shearmire would hit four straight shots in the quarter and the Lions led 19-17 at the half. Once again, Howard found himself in foul trouble, picking up his third in the second quarter. But West Linn got terrific defense off the bench from Kevin Edwards who filled the role as stopper admirably.

“Kevin's just like Jarrod. He does all the little things and doesn't care about stats,” Viuhkola said.

West Linn would open the second half with six straight points but Central Catholic rallied with a 6-0 run of its own. A tough shot from Shearmire with less than a minute to play gave the Lions a 31-27 lead with one quarter between them and a title.

“Our toughness and our defense have improved so much and that's what got it done today,” Coppedge said.

The Lions opened the fourth quarter with Edwards hauling in a big offensive rebound and finding Mathis for a three-pointer.

West Linn suddenly found its shooting touch early in the fourth period. While the Rams tried to keep up, Mathis hit another three, followed by three-pointers from Pritchard and Coppedge to give West Linn an 11-point lead with 3:06 to play.

“We finally caught fire. Anthony hit a couple of shots and that got us going,” Coppedge said.

However, Central Catholic responded with a three-pointer of its own and implemented a full-court press that, once again, gave the Lions trouble.

The Rams rattled off a 9-1 run to cut the lead to 44-41 with 56 seconds to play.

Central Catholic then recorded a steal but missed a long three-point attempt that would have tied the game. The Lions regained possession and Shearmire was fouled. However, he would miss the front end of the one-and-one, giving the Rams life again.

West Linn, one of the best foul shooting teams in the state all year, was just 9-for-18 in the state title game.

Central Catholic looked to tie the game again but the ball was knocked away late and, in a mad scramble for the ball, Shearmire came up with it again and was fouled with 3.2 seconds to play.

This time Shearmire knocked down the first shot as the bench erupted, knowing the game was all but over.

“I know I've got to work on my free throws this offseason but I just kept thinking that I only had to hit one,” Shearmire said.

Shearmire would miss the second but Howard grabbed the offensive rebound and held the ball with a huge smile as he was swarmed by his team at the horn.

“It feels like we're where we're supposed to be. Honestly I felt like we were the best team last year and I felt like we were the best team this year,” Shearmire said.

Shearmire and Mathis each finished the game with 15 points.

The win was the culmination of a truly stellar year and the result of a group of young personalities gelling to form an exceptionally tight unit. The title also shined a spotlight on Viuhkola as one of the state's elite coaches. In his short time at West Linn, he has overseen three straight trips to the state tournament, oversaw the chemistry shift from this year's squad and brilliantly managed its three narrow state tournament wins.

The Lions know their journey is just beginning as well. West Linn loses just one started in Howard along with reserves Alejandro Venecia, Colin Davis and Joel Larson. With that much talent returning, West Linn will likely enter next year as favorites to repeat but also with a new target.

“We have to work just as hard in practice. Just because we have guys coming back doesn't mean anything's going to come easy. We know we've got that X on our back,” Shearmire said.

But for now, the team can enjoy its extended celebration and will anxiously await the new banner's placement in its home gym.

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