When the Portland Interscholastic League girls basketball season began in December, five teams Ñ Lincoln, Jefferson, Benson, Franklin and Grant Ñ appeared ready to duel for the four state playoff berths.

That group now includes Wilson and maybe even Cleveland.

Wilson (5-1) moved into second place with wins over Franklin (4-2) and Madison (0-6) last week. The Trojans will play host to Lincoln (6-0) on Friday.

'I've been pleasantly surprised,' says Wilson coach Kendra Gardner, who moved over from Cleveland last year. 'We have a group of hardworking girls, and we're two deep at every position. We've just been flying under the radar so far.'

Gardner, who starts only one senior Ñ guard Zab Little Ñ hands out a 'money player' award after every game. All nine regular players have earned the honor at least once this season.

Junior Whitney Barton leads the team at 11.6 points per game.

Today's other key girls games include Franklin at Cleveland and Benson at Grant, with the homestanding teams having a slight edge.

'That's the key to getting to the playoffs, winning at home,' says Benson coach Dennis Carline, whose Techsters beat Wilson at home in December. 'If you can defend your home court and steal one or two victories on the road, then you're in the playoffs.'

• Central Catholic (5-0) and Sandy (5-0) are scheduled to meet in a girls battle for the top spot in the Mount Hood Conference on Friday at Central.

The Rams lost a 72-69 decision to Tualatin last Friday in a possible playoff preview. The Mount Hood champion and the Pacific 9 Conference champion could meet in the third round of the state tournament, with the winner heading to the state tournament at the Chiles Center.

Tualatin is competing for the Pac 9 lead.

Central players Annie McIntyre (Manhattan) and Emily Marre (Seattle) have already signed with college programs.

• Jefferson (4-0), which beat its first four league opponents by an average of 44 points, begins a stretch of boys games against teams likely to reach the state playoffs this week.

The Democrats are at home against Lincoln (3-1) tonight. They play at Grant on Thursday and play host to Hillsboro in the third annual Martin Luther King Invitational at Jefferson on Saturday.

Jefferson's girls team, which has played most of the season without injured guard Simone Jordan, plays Oregon City in the opening game of the MLK invitational at 11 a.m. The Demos looked capable of giving the Pioneers a game when the matchup was scheduled in summer, but they've been clobbered with injuries, including a knee injury that has kept Jordan from playing virtually the entire season.

In other MLK games set for Saturday, Skyview of Vancouver will play Mt. Tahoma of Tacoma, Wash., in a girls game at 1 p.m., Grant's boys will face Skyview at 3 p.m., Benson's boys will take on Mt. Tahoma at 5 p.m., and then Jefferson and Hillsboro will square off.

Jefferson and Hillsboro reached the semifinals of the Les Schwab Invitational two weeks ago but were on opposite sides of the bracket.

• After a 46-44 win over Lincoln, the Benson boys think they have a shot at running with Jefferson next Tuesday at Jeff.

'We think we can play with them,' junior forward Bryson Hampton says. 'Jefferson has been doing pretty well so far, but I don't think they're going to go through the league without a loss. We could be the team to give them that loss.'

The Techmen, who start just one senior, Jeremy Lathan, have gotten strong play from junior Tresean Owens, who is averaging 14 points per game.

• Madison's boys rebounded from a 64-point loss to Jefferson last Tuesday with a victory over Wilson on Thursday behind a 30-point effort from Antwan Williams, who is among the league's scoring leaders at 21 points per game. Grant senior Dominic Waters leads the league at 22 points per game.

Williams is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor, coach Chuck Matthews says.

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