A meaningful November win for Pilots
Isaiah White didn't have any history with the Portland-Portland State men's basketball rivalry before contributing 21 points and eight assists to the Pilots' 82-75 win over the Vikings on Wednesday.
But as a graduate transfer in his final season of college basketball, White understands that what happens in November is long forgotten when the story of a college basketball season is told.
"We're going to get better. Other teams are going to get better as well. We just have to stay even keel and stay focused," White said.
Truth is both the Pilots and Vikings have a lot of room for growth after another scrappy but hardly artistic crosstown clash.
Portland prevailed — ending a three-game run of Portland State wins in the series — because it executed better on both offense and defense. The Pilots shot 53%, the Vikings shot 41%.
Against a PSU team that wants to speed up the game, Portland scored 25 fast-break points, surrendured only 12 and had 17 turnovers compared with 19 by the Vikings.
After a miserable season a year ago, there were big smiles on the Portland bench as the Pilots turned a two-point lead with four minutes left into a 12-point lead in the final minute.
"It means everything to us," Pilots junior JoJo Walker said. "The past couple of years we were right there in a close game (against the Vikings), then we folded at the end."
Walker was primarly a ball handler in his first two seasons in Terry Porter's program. The Pilots don't need that from Walker now.
Chase Adams, listed at 5-7, might be the shortest starter on an NCAA Division I basketball team. But his game seems plenty big enough.
He played 38 minutes against a Portland State team that thrives on full-court, in-your-face, pressure defense. Adams had nine assists, three turnovers and two steals.
"Give him credit. He did a great job," Portland State coach Barret Peery said.
Adams had a few freshman moments early, but like his teammates, he settled down after Portland State hustled to a 23-13 lead.
Porter used words such as "tough" and "winner" to describe how he came to trust a freshman to play point guard.
"He's a Chicago kid. He's tough. He's a great facilitator, and I think that's one thing our team needed," Porter said. "We needed a guy that could lead us at both ends of the floor."
Portland lost a talented player when Marcus Shaver Jr. transferred to Boise State. Shaver (14.8 points per game) led the Pilots in scoring last season. But his 69 assists were erased by 69 turnovers.
Early numbers indicate Adams will be a possession saver for Portland. Through five games after the game at Portland State, Adams had 29 assists. His 12 steals outnumbered his 10 turnovers. And against the Vikings he was a significant part of making Portland State's top scorers work for every point they got.
In Adams and White, who gives the Pilots a three-level scorer — driving, mid-range jumpers and 3-point range — they haven't had in the Porter era, Portland has some fun players to watch.
But the Pilots' success this season likely will depend upon bigger players. Against the Vikings, 6-9 junior Tahirou Diabate was limited to 12 minutes. Jacob Tryon, a 6-11 junior known for his perimeter shooting, played big down the stretch, including hitting all eight of his late foul shots. Hugh Hogland, a 6-10 sophomore, helped the Pilots settle in with a few key rebounds in the first half.
From Porter's perspective, it was another forward step for the Pilots' bigs, who hope to get a boost in December when 6-11 sophomore Theo Akwuba becomes eligible to join the rotation.
"Our guard play this year has been great. Our bigs are getting better and better," Porter said. "We are trying to get more balanced scoring, where our inside game is as good as our outside game. It's been really good to see the maturity of our bigs inside."
PSU, by contrast, as struggled to find scoring beyond junior guard Holland "Boo Boo" Woods and graduate transfer guard Matt Hauser.
A preseason all-Big Sky player — Woods found himself in foul trouble against the Pilots and took 16 shots to score his game-high 22 points and had more turnovers (six) than assists (five).
Woods and Hauser have carried the Viking offense early in the season. The Pilots didn't let that happen. Hauser finished with eight points on 3-of-13 shooting.
"They did a really good job on Boo Boo and Matt. Didn't let them play through the paint," Peery said. "We've still got to do a better job finishing around the rim."
Missed shots at the rim were a big reason the Vikings lost at Hawaii. Against Portland, the Pilots' superior height had an impact — even though the Vikings won the rebound battle 42-33, their 17 offensive boards produced only 13 second-chance points.
To be sure, the Vikings missed Sal Nuhu when the 6-8 senior limped off with a twisted ankle midway through the first half. But Peery wasn't pointing to that as an explanation for his team's shooting struggles or other challenges.
Nuhu's absence doesn't explain the Vikings' tendency to create shots off the dribble or why they seldom switched the ball from one side of the floor to the other.
Peery gave plenty of credit to Portland's defense for his team's poor shooting.
To be fair, other than Woods, Nuhu and Rashaad Goolsby, Portland State's roster included players either new to the program or to their roles.
Peery said it's his job to get them all invested in the journey ahead. The PSU coach did not like the way his team reacted at crunch time against Portland — he wanted more fight to protect home court than he saw.
"We've just got to get back to working hard and playing together. But Portland had a big part in (the struggles)," Peery said.
"I think it's going to take time. That's what the preseason is all about, especially with seven or eight new guys."
Yes, a months-long journey awaits. One Wednesday in November doesn't answer big questions. But on this occasion, the Pilots were the group following a united course.
Perhaps White's experience following a map from junior college to Maine to Portland helps explain that.
"We just love being around each other on and off the court, and I think it shows when we play," White said.
He said he knew he was in the right place this summer when teammates started opening up to each other, sharing experiences and aspirations.
"Regardless of the wins and losses, I knew this was going to be a special group," White said. "If we're playing the best basketball together and having fun together, that's all that matters."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.