The road to state took a strange detour at tipoff for the Horizon Hawks in their 61-54 defeat Saturday of visiting Jordan Valley Mustangs.
The game started oddly - Micah Engel grabbed the opening tip and stepped back over the mid-court line, for an over-and-back violation.
A hustling defense by the Mustangs was matched by their own set of jitters and within the first two minutes the score was 3-3: three turnovers for each team.
"Nerves. We came out tight and we played that way the whole game," coach Darrin Lingel said.
But the Hawks played through the jitters and earned a berth at the state 1A quarterfinals tournament in Baker City this weekend, with their opening game at 3:15 Thursday against Triad - the team that knocked out the Hawks at state last year.
"Little bit of a revenge factor," Lingel said.
Sam Anthony would score first against Jordan Valley, and the Hawks would trail only once in the game, 8-7. Then the Hawks picked up a turnover after making a free throw and with four seconds left in the quarter they worked the ball around to an open Jake Wells, who hit a 3 to make it 11-8.
The Hawks built a 12-point halftime lead after applying their own clamp-down defense in the last four minutes of the second quarter. The Hawks caused five straight turnovers, scoring on four of them, expanding an uncertain 19-13 lead to a commanding 30-18 to close out the half.
"We kept going to the basket," said senior point guard Max Totaro, who had seven assists and nine points, "and the refs were kind of letting us play. It was pretty physical. We just tried to stay focused and play our game. We were aggressive on defense and we just started fast-breaking and they couldn't keep up with us."
Horizon outshot the Mustangs, hitting 25 of 54 two-pointers compared to Jordan Valley's 16 of 36. That ratio helped greatly as the Mustangs outshot the Hawks from three-point territory, 5/12 to 1/9. It was a dead-heat in free throws, with the Hawks hitting 8 of 17 and the Mustangs 7 of 11. Horizon also had the rebounding edge, 40-35, with Matt Totaro snagging nine, Gabe Holste seven to go with Wells' 17.
"Our shooters really spread things out," Wells said. "They did a good job of getting me the ball in the post, and we were getting mismatches. Both teams were moving the ball well, which always helps getting mismatches on people."
After the mistake-prone first-quarter, the Hawks had started the second quarter with a vengeance, scoring three times in the space of 34 seconds on two baskets by Matt Totaro and another by Jake Wells, who had a 19-point/17-rebound double-double to lead all players in both departments. The Hawks kept finding Wells under the hoop, including a nifty in-bounds lob from Max Totaro to make it 34-24.
The Hawks' lead took an unexpected dip with 3:44 left in the third quarter when Wells got a technical after fouling post Nathan Easterday. Ty Warn made the technical free throws and Easterday followed with a two-pointer and a free throw, and 13 seconds later the Mustangs' Blaine Moran hit a two-pointer to bring the Mustangs within five, 36-31.
Lingel said, "Jake fouled the big buy, got a technical, and they made the free throw. Technically it was a two-point foul, they shouldn't have gotten the ball back, but they did, and they scored. That was seven points with the clock stopped, basically. A nice little swing for them. But after that, we took care of the ball."
Micah Engel would respond with a three, but the Mustangs keep battling to within 39-35 with 2:03 left.
Another dramatic part of the night was Wells' matchup with Easterday, his beefy 6-6 counterpart, who provided the only source of offense for Jordan Valley in the second half. Easterday grabbed six rebounds and had two of the Mustangs' 10 assists.
"You just have to go around him; can't go through him," Wells said. "Everything they got going went through him. He's tough. Good player. We couldn't shut him down."
(Guard Ty Warn had 16 points for the Mustangs, including four of six three-pointers, but the Hawks held the playmaker to 5/12 shooting overall.)
While Easterday had four blocks to go with his 20 points, it was a key Wells block on Easterday at 1:16 left in the third quarter that swung the momentum the Hawks' direction. The Hawks were up by just four at the time, 39-35. With 33 seconds left in the quarter, Max Totaro fed Wells underneath to make it 41-35 heading into the fourth.
Wells picked right up where he left off in the fourth, scoring twice on Max Totaro feeds. Matt Totaro added a jumper to make it 47-35, and the Hawks built their largest lead on a pair of Max Totaro free throws to make it 51-37.
Enter Gabe Holste. After a strong first half in which he grabbed two steals, and created an active target on fast breaks, Holste came off the bench in the fourth to grab two defensive rebounds, add another steal and deliver two assists, including a deft pass to an open Wells on the baseline to make it 59-47. A moment later, Max Totaro found Holste, 6-4 and fast, steaming down the left wing, and hit him with a perfect pass for two more, 61-47.
"Gabe came in and played very well," Lingel said. "Out of everyone out there, he seemed the most relaxed, he and Ryan Aldrich. They both came off the bench and stepped up."
Holste said, "My piece is being intense, and bringing that intensity to the other guys and getting steals and firing things up," adding that the best thing about going to state is "being with the team and winning some more games."