The Lake Oswego boys basketball team believes it's at its best right now.
The Lakers, after opening the year with a gym full of questions and a 4-7 record in the season's first month, have hit their stride.
Lake Oswego has gone 14-1 since then, won the Three Rivers League with a perfect 12-0 mark, and now has put together back-to-back playoff wins to earn a second straight Class 6A state tournament berth. The Lakers notched the second of those postseason wins Saturday, March 7, pulling away to beat No. 10 South Eugene 75-57 at Lake Oswego High School.
"It feels awesome. This is just the way we wanted to go into (the Chiles Center), getting a pretty solid win," said Lake Oswego senior guard Sam Abere, who finished with two points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. "We kind of let them back on us a little in the third quarter, but I think our fourth quarter intensity is just unmatched."
"We were so locked in — I think it was the best game we've played so far," said Lake Oswego senior guard Casey Graver, who led all scorers with 28 points (on 8 of 11 shooting from the field with four 3-pointers and an 8 of 10 day at the foul line), along with seven rebounds, one steal and two charges drawn. "I don't think it's the best we can play, but I think it's the best we have."
"At the beginning of the season, people were questioning us because we lost eight or nine seniors, and of course, (all-league) guard Wayne (McKinney III) had left," said Lake Oswego junior post Trace Salton, who finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and one steal. "People were wondering if we were still going to be TRL champions and if we were going to make it (to the Chiles Center), but here we are now, proving people wrong."
In the process, the Lakers improved to 18-8 overall and won a berth in the state tournament; the Lakers will open play at state against No. 2 South Salem (23-3 overall after winning the Mountain Valley Conference) at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at the Chiles Center on the University of Portland campus.
While the challenge ahead is great, the Lakers say they'll just keep working to get ready.
"We just have to have a great week of practice and take it game-by-game and not look too far ahead," said Lake Oswego senior wing Grant Brauner, who scored 14 points against South Eugene (on 6 of 11 shooting from the field with two 3-pointers), along with two rebounds.
"(It will take) preparation, lots of film, lots of practice, lots of getting shots up," Salton said.
South Eugene, meanwhile, ended its year at 21-6 after winning the Southwest Conference.
The Lakers hit the ground running — or more accurately, dunking — in their win over South Eugene, with Salton knocking the game-opening tip ahead to Brauner who picked it up on the run and soared in for a one-handed jam just eight seconds into the contest.
Brauner added a 3-pointer and scored seven points in the opening quarter, while Graver went for eight and senior guard Jack Chlumak added another "three" to help the Lakers take a 20-13 lead after one period.
"It was really nice," Brauner said of his game-opening dunk. "We got a quick spark off the first few possessions and we knew coming out what we wanted to do."
On their end of the court, the Axe tried to stay close with five points from senior guard Sam Harris and four each by junior Jarrett Bryant and senior Josh Paul.
The Lakers then turned up their defensive pressure in the second quarter, limiting South Eugene to just six points (on 3 of 13 shooting) and forcing six turnovers, while Chlumak, Graver and junior guard Jack Woolf helped their team expand its lead to 34-19 at the half.
Graver and Chlumak scored five points each in the quarter (with one "three" apiece), while Woolf added another 3-pointer and scored four points.
But the Axe wasn't done — not yet. They opened the third quarter with a 19-10 run over the first 4:07 of the period, getting a pair of hoops from senior Bryce Boettcher, three baskets from senior Aidan Clark and another three scores by Harris, including a 3-pointer. Harris' last basket — a pull-up jumpshot from the top of the key — brought South Eugene within 44-38 with 1:53 to go in the quarter.
But the Lakers pushed their lead back to 49-38 at the end of the period, then saw Graver, Salton and Brauner put the game away in the fourth. Graver went for 12 points in the final period, Salton added five and Brauner four as the Lakers pushed their lead as high as 68-48 with 2:21 left and coasted home from there.
"Our coaches did such a great job preparing us for this game and helping us scout," Graver said. "We had so much energy on both sides of the ball, and again, we just had fun."
"We are all on the same page on the court," Salton added. "At the beginning of the season, it was tough because we were making mistakes on the court because we didn't have that chemistry, but now we just play in unison. It's just basketball."
Chlumak added 13 points and seven rebounds for Lake Oswego, while Harris led South Eugene with 20 points (on 8 of 19 shooting from the field with four 3-pointers), along with three assists and two rebounds, Paul had 13 points, two assists, two steals and one rebound, and Bryant 10 points, five rebounds, one steal and one block.
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