West Linn repeats as state champions, winning three games in impressive fashion and bringing home another trophy

by: VERN UYETAKE - Kevin Edwards and other members of the West LInn boys basketball team jump into the arms of the student section after the Lions captured their second state title in a row.With a 67-56 win over Sheldon Saturday, the Lions officially confirmed what most of the state figured was true for the past three months: West Linn is the best 6A team in the state.

Heck, most prognosticators knew it even as the Lions were cutting down the nets last year considering that the team was returning its four leading scorers along with presumably a deeper and healthier bench.

However, talent and experience doesn’t guarantee anything. Even after rolling through the Three Rivers League, finishing third in the Les Schwab Invitational and dropping just one game to an Oregon opponent, 5A champion Jefferson, the Lions needed to win three games in three days at the Moda Center in its biggest test of the season.

The Lions didn’t disappoint. If anything, the team that has been No. 1 in the state for the entirety of the season even exceeded expectations, besting Central Catholic, Jesuit and Sheldon all by double digits to win its second straight state title.

“The first one's always going to be special but to win two in a row with these guys I love feels amazing,” junior guard Anthony Mathis said.

It’s not quite as if the Lions weren’t even tested in the tournament but, heading into the fourth quarter of all three games, West Linn was firmly in command in what was truly an impressive performance and a fitting ending to its season.

The Lions opened the game against a dangerous Central Catholic team. The Rams were ranked No. 8 in the state but had been one of the hottest teams in 6A heading into the tournament.

Central Catholic overcame some early injuries which hurt the team’s ranking and went unbeaten in the Mount Hood Conference. The Rams also obliterated a strong Tigard team in the round-of-16 to reach the state tournament.

“They're a really good team. They won the state title in football, and they're just a group that knows how to win,” coach Eric Viuhkola said.

The teams traded baskets early and the Lions quickly settled into a groove, going on an 8-0 run bolstered by 3-pointers from Ryan Shearmire and Payton Pritchard.

Central would close the gap by scoring the quarter’s final five points, capitalizing on second-chance opportunities.

The Lions led 14-11 after the first quarter and, after a 3-pointer from Anthony Mathis, they extended the advantage to eight.

However, the Rams continued to hurt West Linn on the glass, getting 11 offensive rebounds in the first half alone and, despite the Lions shooting the ball well, West Linn only led 28-24 at the break.

The Lions have been a dominant second-half team at times this year and, in their previous two playoff games, they outscored Century and Grant 91-46.

West Linn wasn’t quite that prolific this time but it did make some key adjustments to take control of the game.

The Lions switched to a man defense and quickly started rebounding better. West Linn also made it difficult for the Rams to get clean looks in the paint.

“At the half, we thought we could handle them straight up and we were able to rebound better out of that man defense,” Viuhkola said.

West Linn didn’t hit a 3-pointer in the second half, instead focusing on getting to the basket and drawing fouls.

Pritchard proved to be a nightmare for Central Catholic and the point guard almost single-handedly got the Rams into foul trouble.

“It's a littler easier to run here on the bigger court and you can be aggressive,” Pritchard said.

The Lions got to the line 22 times in the second half. West Linn was a little sloppy toward the end of the third quarter, turning the ball over three times in four possessions but Central Catholic couldn’t take advantage and trailed 47-37 with one quarter to play.

“We wanted to keep going to the rim and picking up free throws,” Pritchard said.

The fourth quarter was played at a faster tempo than the rest of the game as the Lions stayed aggressive.

“I thought we did a great job against their pressure and attacked it well like we did against Grant,” Viuhkola said.

Mathis scored 12 consecutive points at one period down the stretch and combatted four 3-pointers from the Rams’ Ben College in the quarter.

A long three from College cut the lead to eight points with 40 seconds to play. Central Catholic then forced a turnover on a tie-up but the Rams were whistled for a costly technical foul and the Lions would win 74-63.

Mathis and Pritchard combined for 52 points in the contest.

In the semifinals, West Linn took on perennial powerhouse Jesuit, a team that has been in the semifinals 12 of the last 13 years.

This time the Lions wouldn’t need a second-half push to advance. After falling behind 6-2, West Linn would outscore the Crusaders 19-5 for the remainder of the period.

Two huge blocks inside from Shearmire keyed the run and West Linn had no issue getting to the hoop.

“We wanted to play our game and not let Jesuit slow it down against us. My job on the team is to make things difficult inside,” Shearmire said.

CJ Sitton came off the bench to drain a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, including one at the buzzer to put the Lions up 21-11.

West Linn continued to extend the lead early in the second period, shooting 15-for-22 in the first half.

“We shot the ball well and rebounded well but I still thought there were things we could improve on,” Viuhkola said.

Jesuit, meanwhile, was settling for nothing but outside jumpers after struggling in the paint in the early going.

The Crusaders were 4-for-14 from the 3-point line in the first half and just 3-for-14 on 2-point shots.

“We didn't want to let them run their motion offense and we made them take tough shots. For us it was just about getting the rebound and taking off and running,” Viuhkola said.

West Linn led 37-20 at the half and the Crusaders never got back in the game. West Linn cooled off from the field slightly but the Lions’ defense turned back a rally. Jesuit also hurt itself, going just 9-for-17 from the foul line.

West Linn would go up by 24 points in the fourth quarter before both teams cleared their benches.

The Lions cruised 65-46 and got double-digit scoring from Pritchard, Mathis and Shearmire.

In the title game, West Linn faced an upstart Sheldon team that had been under the radar for much of the season.

The Irish, who the Lions beat in 1997 for their first state basketball title, knocked off No. 2 Clackamas convincingly and then played a nearly flawless game in the semifinals in dismantling South Salem.

For the first time all tournament, the Lions opened the game ice cold. Mathis also picked up two fouls in the first quarter as the referees called a tight game.

“There's always a few jitters but both these teams like to get out and run, and eventually the shots started falling,” Mathis said.

Sheldon led 13-8 after the first quarter but the deficit could have been larger.

The Irish scored on their first possession of the second quarter but West Linn would counter with a 10-0 run. Pritchard and Hayden Coppedge hit back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game at 15-15 and the Lions never trailed again.

“These guys have never lost their poise all year. It's been an incredible group to coach,” Viuhkola said.

Ty Cleland made a big impact for the Lions, coming off the bench while Mathis was in foul trouble.

He hit a pair of 3-pointers and had eight points in the game while playing tough defense.

“I've always been ready for the moment. Over the years I've had the chance to play behind some of the best players in the state,” Cleland said.

After missing their first two 3-pointers in the game, the Lions would make eight of their next 12 attempts in the half.

Sheldon did its best to keep pace, hitting three 3-pointers in the final five minutes of the second quarter, but West Linn’s offense was too much.

Holding a 28-24 lead, West Linn held the ball for the final minute of the half. Pritchard then drove and kicked the ball to an open Kevin Edwards, who drained a 3-pointer at the horn, making it 31-24.

“I knew we had it when Kevin hit that three. That was a big shot,” Mathis said.

Sheldon continued to stick around, cutting into the lead slightly with a pair of put-backs.

The Irish would cut the lead to four and the Lions would struggle against Sheldon’s tough interior defense.

However, the Lions would continue to do a good job getting to the foul line and led 51-41 with one quarter left.

The Lions were calm and under control for the final eight minutes. West Linn ate up clock and let Pritchard attack the Irish one on one.

Sheldon would cut the lead to eight points with under three minutes to play but Mathis responded with an easy layup as the Lions broke the press.

That would be as close as the Irish would get as West Linn was able to run out the clock.

Pritchard and Mathis each finished with 21 points and were both unanimous first-team all-tournament selections. Shearmire was a second-team all-tournament pick.

West Linn will graduate a stellar senior class, one that has been to the state tournament four consecutive years. Three starters, Shearmire, Coppedge and Edwards, will graduate along with crucial role players Cleland, Sitton, Elijah Grant and Matt Wright.

However, West Linn's two leading scorers for the tournament, Mathis and Pritchard, will both return as the Lions will, no doubt, be one of the top-ranked teams in the state once again.

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