SALEM— Nobody expected Newberg boys basketball to be here – at least those outside of their locker room. With plenty of turnover from last year's team that made it to the 6A postseason, including the graduation or transfer of many of its top players, the Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the PacifIc Conference by the OSAA.
Coach Mark Brown's team used that as motivation throughout the year. Newberg defied those expectations and finished second in the conference, going 8-4 in league games and 14-10 overall in the regular season, earning them a No. 31 seed in the 6A postseason and a date with No. 2 South Salem.
The talented Saxons dispatched Newberg 58-37 on Wednesday night, but the general feeling as the Tigers emerged from the postgame locker room was one of pride – for their achievements this season and for their effort in this first-round playoff contest.
"I could not be more proud of my guys," Brown said. "We talked all year long about effort and I wrote on the white board before the game that we had to earn the right to be proud of ourselves. We told them regardless of what the scoreboard says, that's not what makes us proud. What makes us proud is the effort and heart we show on the court and tonight I thought we did exactly that."
Through the first four minutes of the game, South Salem maintained a narrow lead at 8-5 and Newberg was matching the Saxons step for step. But as the pace picked up and the Tigers turned the ball over more frequently, South Salem extended its lead to 18-9 after one quarter.
South Salem's full-court press caused havoc for Newberg all night, forcing regular turnovers and reacting in unison to the movement of the ball. With superior athletes and an uncanny discipline, it was defense that won the day for the home team.
"They adjusted with a bit of a different press than what we saw on film," Brown said. "They played a little further up than usual and jammed up the middle and I thought we did a great job handling it for stretches of that game. Turnovers stuck with us and made us a bit more timid, though, and that made a big difference."
As the second quarter progressed, the Saxons began finding their groove offensively by getting to the basket at will, slashing through the lane and finishing around the rim with relative ease. The Saxons' athletes were simply a step quicker and a few pounds stronger than Newberg on Wednesday night, and it showed as the lead ballooned.
A strong finish to the second quarter by Newberg stopped the bleeding a bit, but the Saxons still led 32-21 at halftime.
The game reached an emotional crescendo in the third quarter as South Salem's Trey Galbraith hit a deep three-pointer and appeared frustrated with the lack of foul call on the play. He was then called for a blocking foul on the ensuing possession as a Newberg player barreled into him. Galbriath slapped the floor in frustration – resulting in a technical foul.
That could have been a moment where the game turned for Newberg as it trailed 39-25, but the South Salem coach pulled Galbraith from the game and was held the Tigers off. Through three quarters, it was 43-28 South Salem. The Saxons won the fourth quarter 15-9 en route to the lopsided victory.
For much of the final stretch, young Newberg players got some much-needed playoff experience heading into next season.
"It's great experience," Brown said. "We have a lot of guys who got great experience tonight that will be coming back next year if they choose to try out and make the team. Things are good for us going forward and we have a lot of guys coming back with bright futures."
Newberg graduates six seniors from this year's varsity roster: Jovy Ogles, Jake Gaunt, Tyler Brunhaver, Zach Macris, Hayden Pyritz and Luke Esmond. A hefty chunk of the senior class was in the starting lineup for the Tigers and the rest were contributors throughout their four years.
All the seniors came up through the Newberg program and mean a lot to Brown, he said.
"It's tough to finish the season this way and to know that these seniors are gone, but I couldn't be more proud walking out of that locker room with this group of guys," Brown said. "The way we played and how we didn't give up – I can't say enough about that and how they played for us coaches.
"This was a special group. They taught me a lot. We were supposed to be fifth in the Pacific Conference and we finished second with five guys getting all-league recognition. It's all because of the players and how hard they worked, and how they trusted the coaching staff."
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