PENDLETON — The No. 1 Western Mennonite boys basketball team is sick of coming up short.
The last two years the Pioneers have finished in third place at the 2A state tournament, losing the semifinal game by 20 or more points.
But this season it was Western Mennonite that toppled its opponent, and with Friday’s 61-37 win over No. 5 Oakland they punched a ticket to the title game.
“It feels really good,” Payton Richardson, Western Mennonite’s top scorer, said. “But not good enough yet.”
Richardson and the rest of the Pioneer squad won’t be satisfied until they get that trophy in their hands, and behind them is an experienced staff that is well equipped to handle the stakes.
Head coach Gary Hull will be making his fourth trip to the championship game, but this group of boys is unlike any other he added.
“These guys have been with me since fifth, sixth grade, these little rascals we call them,” Hull said as he cracked a smile. “This is one of the closest groups we’ve had ever. They just really really like each other.”
That chemistry shows on the court and translate to the team being able to make the necessary adjustments when a wrench is thrown their way.
After coming out of halftime up 33-15, Western Mennonite banked a few shots to increase its lead but then the Oakers (25-4) went on a 10-0 run to pull within eight points of the Pioneers (26-3).
“We just really focused and made sure we played together.” Richardson said of the team’s efforts to build back its lead. “No one tried to be the hero or anything. We just kept playing like we’ve been all season.”
The result was outscoring Oakland 17-6 in the fourth quarter, and cruising to its 24-point victory.
Leading the Pioneers was Richardson with 16 points, and was one rebound shy of a double-double.
Helping Western Mennonite down the stretch was Johnny Williams, who finished with 11 points behind Alex Nicoli (13 points) and Keaton Hull (12 points).
For the Oakers, Sean Winn netted a game-best 18 points. Cameron Benzel’s efforts were felt more on defense, where he grabbed 14 boards to lead to a whopping 17 total rebounds. He finished with seven points on the night.
Oakland will face Vernonia in the third-place game at 6:45, and Western Mennonite will follow with a matchup against Columbia Christian for the 2A title.
OHS 7 8 16 6 — 37
WMHS 14 19 11 17 — 61
OAKLAND — S. Winn 18, C. Benzel 7, N. Chastain 5, C. Brownson 4, A. Harrington 2, N. Strempel 1.
WESTERN MENNONITE — P. Richardson 16, A. Nicoli 13, K. Hull 12, J. Williams 11, J. Roth 3, M. Hull 2, G. Volbeda 2, C. Nofziger 2.
3-pointers — OHS 6, WMHS 5. Free throws — OHS 5-16, WMHS 24-34. Fouls — OHS 28 (Brownson fouled out), WMHS 21.
COLUMBIA CHRISTIAN 67, VERNONIA 48 — The first half of Friday’s final game proved to be worth the wait. The No. 11 Vernonia Loggers were toe-to-toe No. 1 Columbia Christian.
The Knights held on to a narrow 18-17 lead after the first quarter, and at the break were still up by only one point after both teams scored 14 points in the second.
With a spot in the championship on the line, Columbia Christian came out of the break re-energized and outscored Vernonia 18-2 in the third quarter. The Knights’ efforts put them well ahead of their competition, and they capped of the night with a 67-48 victory.
In the opening quarter, there were six lead changes and one tie. With only 0.02 seconds on the clock and the Knights (29-1) down 15-17, Columbia Christian’s Ben Gregg was fouled driving to the basket. His layup was good — to tie the score at 17 points apiece — and so was his shot from the free-throw line to give the Knights the slight advantage going into the second quarter.
Efforts from both teams accounted for three ties and four lead changes in the second, but Columbia Christian managed to hang on to its lead.
The Knights’ top scorer was Gregg, who finished with 27 points and 19 rebounds. Dominic Blake followed with 18 points and Isiah Mariscal recorded 11.
Gregg did the most damage in the third quarter when the Knights (29-1) secured the win.
The Loggers (20-9), however, put up three solid quarter, and were led by Clay Sullivan with 15 points. Gaven Everett chipped in 11 of his own and nine rebounds.
VHS 17 14 2 15 — 48
CCHS 18 14 18 17 — 67
COLUMBIA CHRISTIAN —
3-pointers — VHS 6, CCHS 4. Free throws — VHS 4-9, CCHS 13-17. Fouls — VHS 14, CCHS 10.
Contact Alexis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4542. Follow her on Twitter @almansanarez.