Juan Alvarez struggled offensively from the field throughout the full 32 minutes of regulation play, registering no points over the course of the action on Friday, Feb. 18.
But with less than a minute to go in overtime and with his team up 46-45, Alvarez showed up in a big way. The North Marion senior went to the free throw line and hit the first shot. It wasn't clean through the net, but it fell. When he hit the second free throw, North Marion led by three points and the pressure was on Estacada to make a big play on the other end.
The Rangers could not. Another made free throw from fellow senior Isaiah Mata put North Marion up 49-45, and that's where the score stayed when the horn sounded at the end of overtime.
"He's clutch from the free throw line, that's something we already knew," North Marion head coach Tully Wagner said of Alvarez. "It doesn't matter how the game goes before that, when he has the one-and-one and he stepped to the line, I knew both were down. We planned that when both go down, this is what we're doing defensively. We all knew that was going to happen, and he stepped up big."
Alvarez's clutch free throws helped ensure a victory on a senior night the players will remember for a long time. The eight seniors on the squad who had their junior season clipped short by the COVID-19 pandemic and played just 10 games in the previous season have been a guiding light to the team this season, according to Wagner.
"They've just done a great job of being consistent, being accountable and leading the way we want our seniors to lead," Wagner said. "It really is every single guy. Some of them play more than others, but every single guy we enjoy being around every day. They all bring energy to practice; they all are good mentors to our younger kids and they're good representatives of our program. I'm super proud of our seniors."
Against Estacada, North Marion was led by freshman point guard Cole Hammack. The lone guard racked up 25 points over the five periods of play and was the motor the Huskies offense both in the half court and in transition. Only sophomore Carter Reilly also scored in double digits with 14 points.
For North Marion, Hammack's ability to make plays comes from the trust that his teammates have in his ability to work within the structure of the offense and defense.
"The thing that has been really great about Cole this year is that he's come in this year and the older guys have been really accepting of him taking a large role on our team, and he wants the team to have success," Wagner said. "Sometimes that means getting downhill and scoring, sometimes that means making good passes and getting the assists. He always is working for rebounds. He's always poised and composed, and that helps us a lot."
North Marion improved to 5-4 in the Tri-Valley Conference (TVC) with the win over Estacada, and 11-9 overall. One final league game against Molalla awaits the Huskies on Monday, Feb. 21. The team will travel to Molalla to avenge a loss from the first of the month, when the Huskies fell 71-64.
As of Friday night, North Marion was ranked No. 13 in the state at 4A and guaranteed an at-large bid into the play-in round. Wagner isn't looking past Molalla (10-10, 4-5 in TVC).
"We beat Molalla, we wrap up a third-place finish in league with a chance at being in second if something happens," Wagner said. "That's 100 percent of our focus. When the rankings finish on Tuesday, the play-in game isn't until Friday or Saturday, we have plenty of time to get film and work on our actual opponent instead of worrying about hypotheticals. We're just worried about the one in front of us."
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