COOS BAY — For an entire year, the De La Salle North Catholic boys basketball team has been focused on one day in March.
The third, to be exact. That’s the day the Class 3A state basketball championship is decided. And the Knights want that title. Two times the Knights have played for the title and come close. Now, after a hard-fought 47-36 win over Blanchet Catholic, the top-ranked Knights are back in the title game, focus never wavering.
“It’s been the mission for a year now, exactly a year,” Kadeem Nelson said of returning to the finals after scoring 10 points. “We started this group chat with our whole team that we were gonna do this and not stop. We grind it out every day in tears, sweat and blood for each other, for our seniors.”
De La Salle has played like it’s been laser-focused on the title all season. The Knights haven’t lost in 2018, the last defeat coming to Horizon Christian way back in early December.
De La Salle got to the semifinals with a blowout win over Irrigon, then had to claw past Blanchet after trailing by as many as nine in the first half.
“It’s sort of surprising because they’re teenage boys when it’s all said and done,” Knights coach James Broadus II said. “You tend to think that they’ll lose focus. But they’ve been focused from the beginning of the season ’til now. And the focus allows them to keep their eye on the future but at the same not look past the moment. They’ve been able to stay within the moment and play game by game. But they all knew in the back of their minds this was the day.”
Blanchet, led by junior point guard RJ Veliz and senior wing Mike Bashaw, broke De La Salle’s trademark press for the duration of the first quarter, controlling the pace of the game.
It’s a position with which De La Salle is unfamiliar. Blanchet was forcing turnovers or misses and rebounding and running when they had the chance or walking it up if numbers weren’t it its favor.
The result was a 15-9 lead after a quarter and an 18-9 lead early in the second after a Freddy Torres 3-pointer barely a minute into the period.
“That was the biggest thing we were talking about: control the pace of the game,” Blanchet coach Max Goodman said. “And when we had opportunities to push, we were comfortable with that. But it was always getting back, trying to slow them down. That’s what they do. They try to speed you up. Lots of pressure, trying to get you out of your rhythm.”
But the press works by wearing on you. It’s easy for it to speed up the ball-handlers and quicken the decisions. Suddenly you’re making long passes with traps coming and you don’t see the defender who baited you into making the pass.
“At the end, the transition game is what most of their offense comes from,” Veliz said after leading all scorers with 14 points. “And at the end they had three, four steals in a row that led to layups and that’s just what killed us. We were confident with our defense, it was just their defense turning into offense, 2-on-1s, fast breaks, things like that."
So it happened with De La Salle on Friday night. Whereas Blanchet controlled the pace and dictated the action for the first 12 minutes, De La Salle ripped control away suddenly and certainly and used a 13-4 run to trail by just one at the break.
And when the Knights can pull bodies off the bench seemingly at will, the press becomes even tougher to handle. An internal motto for the Knights is, “We too deep.”
“We pride ourselves in being deep and being able to go into our bench,” Broadus said. “Our assistant coach calls them body blows. Body blows. Body blows. We know body blows will slow you down. In the first half, first quarter in particular, Blanchet came out and gave us all we could handle. We knew that if we just stayed calm, there’s always a lot of time in the game.”
Emmanuel Reiley, who led the Knights with 12 points and 12 rebounds, scored right out of the break to give De La Salle a 24-23 lead, and the flip-flop was on. Neither team led by more than three points in the third quarter with five lead changes.
De La Salle, which struggled shooting in the first half and into the third quarter, finally started to put the ball in the basket. It’s hard to get into a press after a miss, and Blanchet would make De La Salle pay after defensive rebounds, quickly getting outlet passes up the floor.
But after makes, De La Salle was too much. And after George Sadi, who finished with 10, hit De La Salle’s first and only 3-pointer of the game with 56 seconds left to put the Knights up by five, the Knights smelled blood in the water. The shot halted a 6-0 Blanchet run and flipped momentum immediately.
“Three-pointers a lot of times are momentum-changers in high school basketball,” Broadus said. “When he hit that, and he hadn’t been shooting well, but we hadn’t shot a lot of 3s. We were making an effort to get to the basket and finally we were able to get some pressure on the back end of a big play that they made as well.”
De La Salle’s press and physicality had worn Blanchet thin. Torres left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. Mike Bashaw hit his head on the floor in the fourth quarter and was shaken up, and Veliz banged up his wrist on the same play. It was a physical game from the outset and never eased.
Blanchet still has another game to play and a night to get healthy.
“We had goals and everything, but we have another game tomorrow,” Veliz said. “Gotta shake it off and get that third-place trophy.”
De La Salle faces Dayton at 9 p.m. in a rematch of last year's final, which the Pirates won 64-55.
“We’re confident no matter who we play,” Nelson said. “We feel like we can beat whoever."
Blanchet gets Santiam Christian at 1:15 p.m.