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BY STEVE BRANDON/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Democrats use inside-outside game to knock off South Salem; Jesuit next with state title on the line

Jefferson boys basketball coach Pat Strickland emerged from the postgame locker room and breathed an audible sigh of relief Friday afternoon.

It didn't come easy — certainly not as the final score might indicate — but his Democrats had just outlasted South Salem 77-63 to earn another trip to a state championship game.

It'll be the Demos (24-5) vs. Jesuit (22-6) in Saturday's 3:15 p.m. Class 6A final at Chiles Center.

Jefferson, the 2017 6A champion, will be playing in its third straight title game. It's also the Demos' eighth trip to the finals in the past 12 years, counting five wins at 5A from 2008-14.

The want to — that drive to get another championship — helped fuel third-ranked Jeff through what was a back-and-forth semifinal much of the way with the No. 2 Saxons.

"We knew it was going to be a battle," Strickland said, recalling that the Saxons had led his club by 16 points in the first half Dec. 26 at the Les Schwab Invitational before Jeff prevailed 70-65.

In Thursday's 87-68 quarterfinal win over Grant, Jefferson used its 1-2 inside punch of 6-8 sophomore Kamron Robinson and 6-7 soph Nate Rawlins-Kibonge to pull away.

Against South Salem, the Demos still had their inside muscle and scoring — with Rawlins-Kibonge having an almost-can't miss game — but Jeff also had the sweet outside touch of 6-3 freshman guard Lamar Washington.

"I know those two guys are seasoned," Strickland said. "They've been doing it all season, in practices and in games."

Washington's silky stroke was worth 20 points. He hit 5 of 6 from 3-point range and 7 of 8 overall.

"He's had games like that," Strickland said. "He's carried a lot of weight for us, and as a matter of fact, he might get to start tomorrow. We'll see."

Rawlins-Kibonge, meanwhile, was in a Pop-A-Shot-like groove on Friday. He drained his first 10 shots before missing an 18-footer. He finished 11 of 12 from the floor and posted game highs of 25 points and 16 rebounds, all but cementing all-tournament honors.

The Saxons played a zone defense that tried to get numbers on Jefferson's post-up guys, "trying to pack it in, but we were fortunate that Nate still had a great game," Strickland said.

South Salem (23-4), which will take on Lake Oswego at 1:30 p.m. Saturday for third place, stayed close into the fourth quarter. The game had 12 ties and seven lead changes until Jeff went ahead for good on a Washington 3 with 2:23 remaining in the third quarter.

The Saxons trailed only 56-50 going into the fourth, and when Jefferson's University of Washington-bound senior guard, Marcus Tsohonis, picked up his fourth foul with 6:29 to go, South Salem still had life despite a 59-50 deficit.

But the Democrats outscored the Saxons 18-10 in the closing 4:14.

"I think eventually we wore them down and tired them out a little," Strickland said.

Eric Lungu led South Salem with 19 points, adding eight rebounds. Ryan Brown went up against the Demos' strength inside and came away with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Jaden Nielsen-Skinner, guarded by Tsohonis, had 12 points and six assists but went just 4 of 22 from the field. And junior guard Trey Galbraith had nine points, making 3 of just six shots.

"They have two really good, all-state guards," Strickland said of Nielsen-Skinner and Galbraith. "Our game plan was to make somebody else beat us — and No. 1 (Lungu) and No. 5 (Brown) almost did."

In many ways, the 6-5 Tsohonis had his second frustrating tournament game, as he battled some debatable calls and a hawking Saxons defense. He still wound up with 10 points, eight rebounds and five assists and carried his share of the ballhandling load, but was 3 of 13 from the field in more of a supporting role.

"Last year, I realized I don't get a lot of calls," Tsohonis said. "I don't know what it is. But I play through it. It's tough, but it helps me for college."

Last year, Tsohonis could only watch from the bench as Jefferson fell to rival Grant 63-62 in the title game — after the Democrats had gone 3-0 against the Generals in a trio of regular-season donnybrooks.

"It really hurt last year, just watching, with a cast on my hand (and broken finger). … Man, I'd love to finish this out and get another ring. That's huge," Tsohonis said.

The whole Jefferson program is happy to get back in the biggest game of all.

"It means a lot," Strickland said. "We've still got a funny taste in our mouth from when we walked off the court last year."

Being able to play his career at Jeff and cap it with one more championship game means a lot to Tsohonis.

"My grandmother worked at Jefferson for 17 years, and I'm a neighborhood guy," he said. "So I was all the way (in on Jefferson). I've played four years on varsity, and now I'm just teaching these young guys with have."

Strickland said the Demos will need Tsohonis to be on his game and to keep his wits about him in the final.

"He's got to assert his leadership," Strickland said. "He's been there."

And so the boys basketball season will end basically the way it began. Jesuit played at Jefferson on opening night, Nov. 30. Jeff won 79-75.

The fourth-seeded Crusaders have looked even more formidable of late, though, and especially so in this tournament. They earned their spot in the finals earlier Friday with a come-from-behind, 52-40 upset of No. 1 Lake Oswego. In the quarterfinals, they pelted Central Catholic in the second half en route to a 64-38 victory.

"Man, that's a great, really structured team," Rawlins-Kibonge said of Jesuit.

Tsohonis wasn't able to play against the Crusaders in last year's quarterfinals. The Demos still won 63-48. But these Crusaders are more seasoned, know how to pick apart an opposing defense and can get hot from the outside.

"We've got to start off quick," Tsohonis said, "because they're a team that can stall the ball. So we need to play hard, get a lead and keep that lead."

One thing Strickland especially liked in the South Salem game was his team's 47-25 edge in rebounds.

"In order to win tomorrow, we're going to have to use our inside play and our grit and rebounding and defense," he said.

It'll be the first-ever championship game meeting between the Democrats and Crusaders.

"We've got a nice little rivalry going with Jesuit," Strickland said, "and we know what we're facing in a Hall of Fame coach in Coach (Gene) Potter and a Hall of Fame system.

"So I'm chasing him, and we're chasing them."

"It's going to be a battle the whole way," Rawlins-Kibonge predicted. "It's going to be a fun game to watch. I hope everybody can come out and watch it."

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