It was a classic chess match of contrasting styles.

In the 6A state quarterfinals on Thursday, it was Sunset’s size versus South Salem’s speed. The Apollos’ length against the Saxons’ blinding quickness. Power squaring off against finesse.

The contest had all the makings of a masterpiece. Yet, when the Saxons spread out the Apollos, started driving hard to the rim and the refs began calling every ticky-tack hand check call, it became clear Sunset’s state title aims were ominous.

Exploiting a tightly officiated affair, extracting fouls on Jeff Bieber and Tyler Gutierrez — Sunset’s dynamite all Metro League duo— and turning the game into a breakneck track meet on the Moda Center hardwood, South Salem took flight from the Apollos and ran away with a 72-65 win.

As a team that once owned dreams of raising a 6A state trophy above its heads on Saturday night, and cutting down the nets in front of family and friends, Sunset was resigned to the fact that its season-long state championship dream was dashed.

“It was tough,” said senior Mikey Fey. “We just didn’t fight hard enough. We didn’t execute. We didn’t put the clamps down on defense when we needed to. But, we don’t want to end on this sour note. We don’t want this game to identify us as a team. We have to come out tomorrow, play hard and win.”

“We tried to give it our best effort, but sometimes it just doesn’t go down,” added senior point guard Glenn Tanguy. “We hung around, though. We had good effort and were resilient together. We can’t be too mad about it. We gave it our all.”

To be clear, the officiating wasn’t the determinant ingredient in Sunset’s fate. The Apollos had a hard time matching the Saxons’ foot speed and ability to attack off the dribble, which led to reaching, grabbing and clutching on Sunset’s part as South Salem raced to the hoop throughout the contest.

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset sophomore point guard Zach Niebergall readies to fire from the outside in the fourth quarter against South Salem in the 6A state quaterfinals.

“Their athleticism and driving surprised us a little,” said Fey. “But, we didn’t do what we needed to, to win. We just didn’t pull it out.”

Trailing 35-31 at halftime, Sunset came out flat in the third quarter which allowed South Salem to take a controlling 41-31 lead just 1:30 into the second half. The Apollos closed within 51-45 in the third quarter off two free throws from Taylor Harris, but could never close the gap because of South Salem’s capacity to evade ball pressure and make smart choices in transition.

“That kind of killed our confidence,” said Fey. “They were very athletic. They drove the ball very well. They beat us, so props to them. They played a great game.”

However, in a state tournament setting where physical play is expected and accepted, Guitierrez picked up his second foul with 3:48 to go in the first quarter and Bieber was saddled with his second mdway through the first half.

Sunset eluded a slow start and 9-2 deficit with two threes from Harris and a four-point play from Willy Pflug that tied the game 18-18 at the end of the first. Yet, the Apollos had to overcome foul trouble for Bieber and Gutierrez their all-league duo both of whom picked up cheapies hampered Sunset’s ability to go full-go. The two go-to seniors were distinctly affected by whistle-happy boys in the zebra-striped shirts. Neither could be as aggressive on either end of the floor with fears of delving into further foul trouble.

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior post Tyler Gutierrez goes hard to the rim against a South Salem defender.

In a sense, Sunset had to play with one hand behind its back as Gutierrez (22 minutes played) and Bieber (18 minutes) shuttled back and forth between the floor and the bench. The Apollos’ two superstars were still impactful, combining for 29 points and 11 rebounds.

Charles Wenzel filled in commendably for Gutierrez and backup center Josh Brown who also had two fouls, scored four points in the second quarter, which helped Sunset claim a 24-20 lead. However, Sunset fans must have walked out of the Moda Center scratching their heads wondering what might have been had the refs swallowed their whistles from time-to-time.

“It was huge,” Fey said of Bieber and Gutierrez’s foul trouble. “They do so much. They’re such huge weapons in our offense and defense. No excuses, we didn’t adapt well to the officiating and (South Salem) got to the line a lot.”

Bieber scored six points in the third and Gutierrez tacked on four to keep Sunset close. But, after Bieber banked in a lay-up, Sunset turned the ballover underneath South Salem’s basket. The Saxons flipped the turnover into a quick hoop, and received extra bread when Bieber reached in, touched the South Salem guard and was whistled for his fourth foul.

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Senior Sunset forward Michael Kerns puts up a one-handed floater in the fourth quarter of the Apollos 72-65 loss to South Salem in the 6A quarterfinals.

At the end of the third, the Saxons led 53-45. South Salem hit 12-14 free throws in the fourth quarter as well, making it nearly impossible for Sunset to make any true headway. The Apollos never quit, however. Fey soared in for an offensive putback and Michael Kerns bored inside for lay-up. Pflug made a three after a Fey kickout in the final minute and Gutierrez flushed a dime from Fey for Sunset’s two points. Fey finished with four points, five rebounds and four assists. Harris had 12 points and four rebounds. Pflug finished with 10 points including two threes.

“We couldn’t give up, we had to fight until the buzzer sounded,” said Tanguy. “We knew this was our most important game. It doesn’t matter who’s on the floor, as long as we play together and give it our best shot, that’s all you can ask for.”

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