Tri-Cities Prep escaped with a 62-58 win over the Heppner Mustangs in the opening round of the Irrigon Invite on Thursday.
“Our defensive execution and energy wasn’t where it needed to be for about three quarters,” said Heppner coach Jeremy Rosenbalm. “If it was stronger from the start, we could’ve had a different outcome. I felt like we were going to take it coming out of our last timeout.”
Heppner led 7-6 with two minutes left in the first quarter until Jaguars junior Landon Amato hit a bucket to turn things around for good. The Mustangs stumbled to a 31-24 deficit going into the half, but came out of the locker room ready to fight.
Heppner senior Gibson McCurry kept his team alive with three straight field goals to bring them within eight points of Tri-Cities with 4:11 left in the third quarter.
In the fourth, the Mustangs rallied to outscore the Jaguars 20-18. With less than four minutes to play, senior Derek Howard scored two baskets to get his team within four points of the lead. But Jaguars junior Logan Mercado, who led the Tri-Cities with 20 points, hit two baskets of his own to hold Heppner off.
“Tri-Cities is a great, tough team to play,” said Howard, a 6-foot-2 center. “But we were down by 13 and battled back — we stopped ‘em and made sure not to foul.”
Mustangs senior Tyler Carter rang up another bucket and made a free throw to reduce the Jaguars’ advantage to just three points with a minute left. But a free throw from Mercado kept things in the Tri-Cities’ favor.
“I gotta give it to our boys — they flipped the switch and picked up the intensity down the stretch,” Rosenbalm said of his team’s performance in the second half. “As a coach, that’s all I could ask for.”
Although Heppner fell to 7-6 overall, they remain at the top of the Blue Mountain Conference, sitting undefeated in league play. They’ll finish off the Irrigon Invite with a Friday game against Liberty City, Wash. The Mustangs pick up league play again at Weston-McEwen on Saturday, Jan. 5.
“These tight games are good for us going into league play,” Rosenbalm said. “Teams at this Invite are quick and will spread you out offensively, like the teams in our conference. We can lean on this game.”