Democrats hold off Churchill for repeat 5A title

EUGENE -- Just hours before Saturday's Class 5A state championship game, Jefferson High boys basketball coach Pat Strickland stopped eating his dinner at Olive Garden and began to cry.

Saturday morning, Strickland made the decision to suspend all but six of his players for the final at Matthew Knight Arena.

“It was horrible,” Strickland said. “I literally cried. I was upset. It was shocking. I was upset for the players who were suspended, I was upset for the players who were playing. I was upset for the program and the community.”

Later that night, Strickland was wearing the biggest smile of his life after the Demos defeated Churchill 69-64 at Matthew Knight Arena.

Jefferson’s fifth state title in seven years was filled to the brim with adversity. The Demos' six players in Saturday's game —Silas Melson, Kadeem Strickland, Devauntae Paschal, Dario Papa-Vicente and Quintus Hall Jr. and Geno West (who came off the bench) --built a 24 point lead in the first half. The Demos then watched that lead crumble to two points late in the fourth quarter.

Playing through fatigue and the heartache of having nearly half the roster missing, the Demos still found a way to hang on down the stretch.

“It’s unbelievable,” Melson said. “Our heart is through the roof.”

Jefferson beat Churchill 63-59 in the state championship game last season, and the Demos (26-1) handed Churchill (25-3) its only two instate losses of this season, having beaten the Lancers in the Les Schwab Invitational. Jefferson did not lose to an instate opponent this year.

The Demos took a 47-25 lead into halftime of the state championship game. In the third quarter, Churchill went into an earnest fullcourt press and cut deeply into Jefferson’s lead. The Lancers began the quarter with a 13-2 run, making the score 49-38 with 4:09 remaining in the period.

With the Churchill fan section screaming and making it feel like a home game for the Lancers, the Demos seemed to be out of sorts throughout the quarter. Jefferson’s shots were not falling, and seemingly everything the Lancers threw up went in. By the end of the quarter, Jefferson led just 54-50.

“We were fatigued,” Strickland said. “They got a little momentum. The crowd was behind them, and they were juiced.”

The Demos rallied in the fourth quarter and kept the lead.

“Me and Pat talked to the team and got in their ears about sticking up on defense and putting them away,” Melson said.

With 23.3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Jefferson led 67-64. As the Demos tried to stall out the game, Churchill was forced to foul. Kadeem Strickland missed his free-throw attempt, and Churchill got the ball with an opportunity to tie the game with a 3-pointer.

A desperation attempt in the final second rimmed out. Strickland got the rebound and was fouled. He made both of his free throws, and Jefferson had its repeat championship.

“When I made the first one, I knew we were going to win the game,”Strickland said.

The Demos finished 24 of 50 from the field (.480) and 11 of 24 from 3-point range (458).

Melson led Jefferson with 24 points, and Kadeem Strickland added 18 points.

“I got into my rhythm,” Melson said. “We did shooting drills the whole warmup time. It was a pressure situation, and everyone had to show up.”

Churchill shot 23 of 53 from the floor (.434) and 4 of 21 from beyond the arc (.190). The Lancers were led by Malik Morgan’s 21 points. Kendrick Abraham added 13 points, and David Shedrick scored 11 points.

Kadeem Strickland came out on fire in the first quarter, connecting on three consecutive 3-pointers and finished with 11 points to help the Demos to a 24-12 lead at the end of the period.

“I had to get in a rhythm,” Strickland said. “I got some shots up before the game, and it gave me some rhythm to make those shots.”

Jefferson extended its lead to 47-25 in the second quarter as the Demos continued shooting the lights out of the arena. Jefferson finished the first half 16 of 28 from the field (.571) and 10 of 16 from the 3-point line (.625).

The 3-pointers were critical to Jefferson’s lead as Churchill did not shoot badly in the first half, making 9 of 20 shots (.450) but only 2 of 9 3-pointers (.222).

The Demos got stellar production out of Melson, who scored 19 points, and Strickland, who scored 16.

By night’s end, the six Jefferson players who took the court had made good on a pact they made before the game.

“These guys made a pact in the locker room,” Pat Strickland said. “They made a pact that they were going to stick together and we were going to get it for the guys who weren’t there.”

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