St. Paul races to first home playoff victory in years, falls in second round
The St. Paul boys basketball team closed the chapter on the 2018-2019 season with a 73-54 loss to the No. 5 Nixyaawii Golden Eagles in the second round of the state on Saturday.
While the loss eliminated the Buckaroos one game away from their goal of reaching the state quarterfinal tournament in Baker City, simply getting this far was accomplishment enough for the group of seniors who began their high school career in 2016 with a 5-19 record and a last-place finish in the league standings.
"It's awesome," senior Justin Herberger said after the Bucks' 63-47 first round victory over Eddyville earlier in the week. "(coach Todd) Swan has been building this program for three years and this is the time when he sees it actually working out for him and what he's built. It's pretty cool."
Swan inherited a struggling program that was brimming with potential, ultimately grooming this year's seniors for a state playoff run that culminated in the win over Eddyville — the program's first home state playoff win in school history.
"It's an exciting feeling to know that you get to continue playing this late," Swan said. "This is something we've worked for ever since day one."
Against the Eddyville Eagles, the Bucks were hosting their first home state playoff game in nearly a decade. The team was eager to get off to a good start. In fact, it was almost too good.
After St. Paul raced to a 15-point lead in the opening half of play, the Eagles closed the gap to five points in the third quarter before the Bucks regrouped and put the game away.
"We came out and we were energized," Herberger said. "Then we got up big on them and we started to relax a little bit."
Herberger led the Bucks with a game-high 25 points. St. Paul had previous state playoff experience at home in 2010 (a 36-35 loss to Umpqua Valley Christian) and 2007 (a 59-45 loss to Lowell). Prior to the 2006 move to six classifications, the 1A state playoffs consisted only of the quarterfinal tournament in Baker City.
"Anytime you can check off records like that, it's big," Swan said. "That's something that the kids will talk about 30 years from now when they're sitting in the stands, and that's exciting stuff to create those memories."
After starting out slow in their league tournament loss to Crosshill Christian on Feb. 16, St. Paul wanted to make sure it took early control against Eddyville.
Herberger and backcourt teammate Jaidyn Jackson scored every point in the opening quarter, and the Bucks' defense put up a goose egg, taking an 11-0 lead after the first eight minutes.
Eddyville picked up its first point on a free throw to open the second period, but St. Paul continued to roll. Broden Learn connected on a three-pointer, followed by a driving layup for Jackson to make it a 16-1 game.
The Eagles finally found their stroke on offense, but the Bucks continued to hold their opponent at a double-digit distance, trading baskets with Eddyville to take a 26-9 lead with 2:48 remaining in the half.
That's when St. Paul's defense started to go lax. The Eagles, led by junior guard Keagan Spikes, went on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to single digits with a minute left.
St. Paul bumped their halftime lead to a 30-20 lead on a buzzer-beater by Zach Brentano, but Eddyville came out firing in the third quarter, scoring the first five points to pull within 30-25.
"(We) started the game strong and then (we) relaxed," Swan said. "Then Eddyville showed why they're a playoff team and hit some shots and scored 20 in the second quarter. It got our kids attention again."
The Bucks responded in kind. Struggling from three-point range throughout the game, Jackson doubled down on driving inside and picked up a pair of free throws to kick start another St. Paul run.
Herberger added a pair of three-pointers on consecutive possessions, while teammates Brentano, Rawley Koch and Eric Diaz got in on the action. By the end of the third quarter, the Bucks had ripped off a 17-3 run to take a 47-28 lead.
"I automatically think to work inside out," said Jackson, who finished with 16 points, all of which were scored in the paint. "Once I start making my inside shots — and I like to do that straight from the bat — once they start kind of adjusting to that, then I go back to the three."
But the Eagles weren't prepared to end their season quietly. Spikes knocked down a pair of triples and a running floater during a late run to cut St. Paul's lead to 51-41 with 3:38 remianing to play.
Jackson responded, scoring six points in the final minutes to keep the game out of reach.
"We constantly made adjustments, and we kind of slowed down our defense at one point," Jackson said. "Coach just pressed us on that and we got after it."
The Bucks finished the game with an 8-0 run to make it 63-44 before the Eagles hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to bring the contest to a close.
In addition to the big nights from Herberger and Jackson, Diaz added eight points, while Brentano and Koch each scored four.