Jefferson plus Grant equals rivalry
Those who believe a rivalry requires both teams to win to be entertaining have not witnessed this season's high school boys basketball battles between Jefferson and Grant.
With Friday's 72-68 win Jefferson has won eight consecutive games against Grant. But the atmosphere inside the Jeff High gym that night screamed rivalry. And so did the action on the floor.
That Jefferson made the decisive plays for the third time this season should only add intensity should the Portland Interscholastic League teams meet again — which, thanks to them being ranked 1-2 by the Oregon School Activities Association — could happen in the March 10 Class 6A championship game.
Friday's chapter was another tough one for Grant, which had a late lead last month at home before losing in overtime. On Friday, the Generals had two possessions in the final minute with a shot at the lead.
This time, it was senior K'lum Strickland who broke Generals' hearts with a run-out layup, steal and two free throws in the final minute.
The win clinched the PIL championship for Jefferson. At 15-0, the Demos can complete a second consecutive perfect league season with a win over Franklin on Tuesday.
But the road to this title has not been as smooth as the record might indicate. Complacency and individual play began to creep in as Jefferson entered the second round of league games.
After a sub-par effort in a Feb. 2 win over Benson, the Democrats held a team meeting.
"We weren't really taking it serious," junior guard Marcus Tsohonis explained.
Given the way the Demos dominated most of their league opponents the first time around, that complacency was human nature. But coach Pat Strickland made it clear that complacency is not allowed.
"I wasn't playing as hard as I should be," Jeff 6-10 senior Kamaka Hepa said. "I had to get on myself and continue to tell myself that I control what I can control, which is my effort and how hard I play and of course my body language."
After contributing 20 points, 12 rebounds, four blocked shots and four assists in Friday's battle with Grant, Hepa admitted his body was sore. But he was smiling because the Democrats came up with big defensive stops at the critical times.
After Grant's Ty Rankin made a dramatic step-back 3-pointer to tie the game with 1:25 left — capping a 10-1 rally for the Generals — Jefferson's defense decided the game.
First, Robert Ford ran down a long rebound and threw an up-court pass to Strickland for a transition layup with 55 seconds left. Moments later, Strickland picked off a cross-court pass, then nailed two free throws to clinch the victory.
K'lum Strickland is a cousin of coach Pat Strickland. He transferred this year to Jefferson from Roosevelt. As big as scoring the final four points was, his defense against Grant junior guard Aaron Deloney also was critical.
The message late in the game was not to give Deloney a chance to make a big play. And the task fell to K'lum Strickland at crunch time.
"K'lum came up huge for us. He played some solid defense against AD (Deloney)," Pat Strickland said. "He got a couple steals, hit some big free throws. He had energy. This was probably K'lum's best game of the year."
Grant coach Robert Key said "K'lum Strickland made a great defensive play."
K'lum Strickland, a 6-1 guard, said defense has been a focal point for him this season after transferring to play for his uncle.
"People don't think a lot about defense. I wanted to learn to be a lock-down defender," he said. The challenge of defending talented teammates such as Tsohonis and Hepa in practice has made a difference.
On Friday's decisive play, K'Lum Strickland said he knew Grant wanted Deloney to get the ball so he anticipated the cross-court pass.
It was another gut-punch loss for the Generals, who have lost three down-to-the-wire games to the Demos this season. Four of the five players who scored for Grant reached double figures, led by 19 points from Kelton Samore and 16 from Damon Hickok.
Key's postgame message to his team on Friday was to focus on earning one more crack at Jefferson. He noted that his team won 12 in a row to enter Friday's game with a chance to share the PIL title, and that despite this loss the Generals will enter the playoffs as the No. 2 seed.
"I told the guys, 'I know it's frustrating, but at the same time let's work one game at a time to get another crack at it,'" Key said.
As happy as he was that his team came through in the clutch again against Grant, Pat Strickland was unhappy about the way his team frittered away a nine-point lead.
"We were trying to be Superman instead of taking a little bit of clock, probing and looking for a good shot," the coach said.
The Demos kept pushing the pace, trying to deliver an exclamation point.
Tsohonis, who led all scorers with 24 points on Friday (and in the three Grant games has averaged 27 points, seven rebounds, 6.7 assists and two steals), had five points and a key assist in the 11-2 run that got Jefferson the nine-point lead. But the junior guard knows he could have managed things better down the stretch.
"That's more of a leadership thing for me," said Tsohonis, who also had eight rebounds and four assists. "I need to slow it down and get us (in the correct offense)."
It's a balance the coach continues to preach.
"We do like tempo, but we like tempo at the tempo times," Pat Strickland said. "Down the stretch, nine-point lead, it wasn't really tempo time. We need to get better at finishing games if we want to get to the Chiles Center."
The state playoffs begin Feb. 28. Jefferson and Grant are set to host in the first two rounds. Assuming they take care of business, they will arrive at the University of Portland on opposite sides of the bracket, setting up the possibility of one more showdown in the state final.
That opportunity figures to drive the Generals through the postseason. Players on both sides seem to look forward to another rematch.
"All respect to Grant," Hepa said. "Hopefully, this is the game for the state championship."
• With seven teams ranked in the top 31, the PIL should be well represented in the state playoffs. A four-way tie for third place is possible pending results of Tuesday's final league games, but based on state rankings Lincoln and Roosevelt should get the third- and fourth-place automatic bids into the tournament with Madison and Cleveland also positioned to avoid the play-in round and Benson likely to land in a play-in round game.
• On the girls side, the four automatic berths from the PIL are set. Benson needs a win on Tuesday at Lincoln to finish tied with Grant for the league title at 15-1. Roosevelt and Lincoln, both 10-5 entering Tuesday, will be the other two teams to go straight into the round of 32. Fifth-place Cleveland could earn a play-in game depending on where it stands when the final rankings freeze on Wednesday. Play-in games are Friday.
Benson coach Eric Knox says that for the first time in his five seasons in the league, the PIL has four girls teams capable of advancing beyond the round of 32 in the state playoffs.