HERMISTON - Payback proved sweet for the Horizon Christian School boys basketball team last weekend.
The Hawks (24-4) punched their ticket to the Class 1A state playoffs by winning the Big Sky District tournament at Hermiston High School on Saturday, avenging three regular season losses en route. Horizon will play a state playoff game 7 p.m. Saturday at home against the winner of Wednesday's Jordan Valley at Wallowa contest. Saturday's winner advances to the March 1-3 state tourney at Baker City.
The main event at district was Horizon's 65-56 title-game victory against regular-season champion Sherman County. The Huskies had defeated Horizon twice during league play - as well as twice last season.
"Beating a team three times in a season is difficult," said Hawks coach Darrin Lingel, who guided his team to the district title in similar fashion a year ago. "We played well against them at their place (a 65-59 Sherman win Feb. 10); they just played a little bit better. We were really looking forward to playing them again."
That showed as Horizon jumped out to an 8-0 start and was ahead 19-9 after one period. Sherman counterattacked behind the play of Zach Smith to take a 28-27 lead at halftime. Smith, a lanky, active 6-foot-2 senior guard, scored 15 points including three three-pointers before the break.
The game see-sawed in the third quarter. Sherman led 30-27 early in the period before Horizon's defensive adjustments started to pay dividends. The Hawks did a better job of closing on the Huskies' outside shooters - forcing them into an 0-for-6 performance behind the arc - and they bottled up the middle to defend slashes to the basket.
At the offensive end, sophomore Matt Totaro and junior Jake Wells started to control the middle, combining for 11 points in the period. Max Totaro's buzzer-beating, tough-angle, three-point bank shot from the left corner gave Horizon a 44-37 lead heading into the final period.
"You could tell that got to them a little bit; you could see it on them and their fans, too. They were really excited and then all of a sudden (silence)," Max Totaro said later. "And, no, I didn't call (bank)."
Scott Stroud's three-pointer with 7:27 to play brought the Huskies within 46-40, but Horizon went on a 5-0 scoring run and Sherman would get no closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Wells led Horizon's counterpunch by scoring 22 points, and Matt Totaro added 21 points and 15 rebounds. Senior wing Sam Anthony chipped in nine points, nine rebounds and three assists.
The undercard to the championship win was Horizon's 78-66 dismantling of Ione in Friday's semifinal game. The Cardinals defeated Horizon 70-60 in the league opener for both teams in December, when Ione had Horizon on its heels the entire time. But the Hawks were on their toes at district, starting with their 70-36 opening win Thursday against Condon-Wheeler.
Horizon continued its heightened play a day later against Ione, using an offensive blitz to build a 30-17 lead after one quarter. Horizon shot 72 percent from the field in the first half and finished at 60 percent for the game.
Anthony did the most damage early, nailing five three-pointers in the first quarter on his way to 25 points.
"It was a weird feeling," Anthony said of his long-range shooting. "Once I got into that zone it was surreal."
Ione adjusted its defense to slow Anthony, so the Hawks dumped the ball into the 6-foot-7 Wells, who had his way with much shorter defenders. Wells scored a season-high 28 points, mostly on post-up, drop-step moves near the basket.
The third offensive cog for Horizon was senior point guard Max Totaro, who had his most efficient floor performance all season. The sleek ball handler scored 19 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out five assists. His court leadership directing the Hawks at both ends didn't make the stat sheet, but it did get noticed by his head coach.
"Max played perhaps his best overall game," Lingel said. "He did what we expect from a floor leader."
Also not lost on Lingel was the play of sophomore, blue-collar guard Micah Engel. Known as the team's perimeter defensive stopper, who shares point-guard duties, Engel had just one turnover in three district games.
"He played probably 70 minutes out of 96," Lingel said. "When you consider how much he handles the ball, and the intensity of the games - to have only one turnover - that's pretty phenomenal."