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Senior small forward leads the fourth quarter charge as the Apollos win at LSI Eight

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior guard Braeden Sato scored a team-high 26 points and dished out five assists against De La Salle.

Sunset plans on playing until the second round of the Class 6A playoffs and beyond.

They want a Metro League banner and more. To get there, teams have to win tight games down the stretch. Finishing opponents in the fourth quarter when the opportunity presents itself is paramount.

De La Salle North dug its proverbial heels into the Liberty High School hardwood, squared up Sunset and delivered a strong left cross in the form of a 12-2 third-quarter run that shaved a double-digit Apollo lead to just two heading into the fourth quarter.

In the first game of the Les Schwab Invitational "Eight" last week, this was exactly the test Sunset needed. Closing out games late, putting teams away when armed with the lead, alluded the Apollos through non-league play. Against North Medford, then at David Douglas, then again at South Eugene, late-game advantages slipped away, leaving Sunset on the wrong side of the win-loss column.

But as the fourth quarter unfolded, Sunset played with a sense of assertive serenity. Braden Sato and Reece Arenz attacked, looking to play make, not just score. Kell Estep and Eli Vernon protected the basketball against incessant pressure, got to the free throw, and found cutters in advantageous situations.

The two-time defending 3A state champs proved their mettle and title merits, surely. Yet Sunset took an important step in its overall progression, putting a nail in the Vikings' coffin with cool-under-fire execution in a 78-67 win on Jan. 2.

"We didn't lose our composure, we stayed together as a team," Arenz said. "We have to work more as a team and that's what we've been doing. If we continue to do so, we'll just keep moving up."

Sato was sensational, scoring a team-high 26 points with five assists and just one turnover. The two-time first-team All-Metro point guard diced up De La Salle, dancing around ball screens, knifing into the lane for pull-up jumpers and floaters, lifting deep threes from all kinds of distances. Estep was fantastic, scoring 18 points with his tough inside-outside game. Arenz was Sunset's artery, especially in the fourth. The senior forward scored or assisted on Sunset's first six possessions of the fourth quarter, breaking De La Salle's pressure with speed and force and finishing off the North Portland squad with sage decisions in the open floor. The blonde ponytailed bomber's jumper fell both from deep and midrange. When De La Salle closed out hard on him, the senior drove strong to the tin and finished through contact. Arenz found Estep with a great jump pass for an and-one, then he spotted Tate Reese under the rim for two. At one point, Sunset led 67-54 with its hype man Arenz leading the charge as only he can, with verbal fire, animation, constant chatter and clapping.

If Sato is the scoring savant, Estep and Colby King are the consistent producers, Arenz is Sunset's heart and soul. He brings a different competitive dynamism to the floor, one that the Apollos need, one that Arenz attributes to his older brother, Brooks, who helped instill a no-back down attitude when the two were kids. He can inspire and charge up Sunset in an unrepeatable way. When Arenz is on, so are the Apollos. Against De La Salle, Arenz scored 17 points with a team-high six assists and six rebounds (three on the offensive end) with three steals and a block. He had his fingerprints all over the box score, impacting the game at a high level in all sorts of ways, but never losing his colorful verbal candor.

"I'm loud, I always bring the energy every time I'm on the floor," Arenz said. "That's honestly what I'm here for."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior forward Reece Arenz stuffed the stat sheet with 17 points, six assists, six boards and three steals.

Sunset finished with 21 assists on 30 made field goals to just 10 turnovers. Seven of those made shots came in the fourth, four of which were assisted, on only nine attempts. The Apollos want to play fast and turn games into track meets. They don't have a lot of size, but their guard play is superb. When Colby King comes back from injury, the Apollos might have the most dangerous closing five in Metro with King, Arenz, Estep, Sato and Eli Vernon on the floor. All five can handle the ball, shoot it, make plays in space and get out in transition. When the game gets up and down, Sunset can go with anybody. But the key to running and gunning is not getting too careless with the basketball. Playing at such a high clip with so many possessions sometimes warrants sloppy play. The teams that can find a balance between velocity and clean trips down the court as Sunset did against De La Salle often find a way to the Chiles Center.

Westview might be the Metro favorite. Jesuit is the defending champion who will be super tough to knock out. Mountainside is already turning heads. Beaverton is big and athletic. But Sunset is the conference's wild card. Hopefully, King can make his return to the floor sooner than later. Freshman Jalen Childs has been a boost off the bench, as has Reese and Mac Robbins. The returners have adjusted to expanded roles and newfound obligations on the floor. Few teams are as entertaining to watch, now the Apollos just have to make sure they can stand in defensively and make sure the games don't spin too far out of control when it's winning time.

"We can't turn the ball over," Arenz said. "The chemistry has continued to build. We were good last year, but this year we can be better. If we can hold teams to 50, 60 points and get stops and keep people in front of us, then we're going to get wins."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior guards Eli Vernon and Braeden Sato double team a De La Salle North guard at the LSI Eight.

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