COOS BAY — A year ago, imagining Oregon Episcopal in the Class 3A boys basketball final was quite a stretch.
Yet here the Aardvarks are, after a roller-coaster game that saw them trail by 11, lead by 15 and trail again before eventually beating Creswell 64-50 in the boys semifinals at Marshfield High School on Friday night.
“We’ve got the mentality, why not us?” said Oregon Episcopal’s Charles Willmott after Friday’s game. Why not?
After all, just to get to the semifinals against Creswell, OES had to beat two-time defending champion De La Salle North Catholic, which had topped the Aardvarks three times this season.
And just to even think about the playoffs, they had to have a complete turnaround from last winter, when they finished last in the Lewis & Clark League and only won five games all season, essentially with the same group of characters.
The Aardvarks feature eight seniors who were part of that group and Willmott said the key element isn’t any of them, but head coach Edward Kirk, who is in his second season at the helm.
“We all bought in to what he was doing,” Willmott said.
So that early 13-2 deficit Friday night or regaining momentum during Creswell’s 16-0 run to end the third period? That was nothing.
“We’ve been a tough team all year,” Oregon Episcopal’s Luca Pejovic-Nezhat said. “We’re tested. We don’t give up at all.”
Time and again this year, he said, Oregon Episcopal rallied from deficits just like Friday. They did it by sticking to their formula.
“We play our way,” he said. “We don’t tell people what to do.”
Creswell coach Jesse Thomas said that was the difference Friday night.
“Every time they needed to execute and get a shot, they got it,” Thomas said. “They executed better than we did most of the night.”
While the Aardvarks were patient, the Bulldogs got out of their rhythm and rushed shots at times. And when that happened, Thomas said, OES capitalized.
The game was a contest of runs and Oregon Episcopal had the last one, but only after a bunch of momentum swings.
Creswell came out red hot, leading 13-2 after a three-point play by Tyler Frieze before the Aardvarks chipped away at the lead, which is their method.
“We knew they were going to come out strong,” said Pejovic-Nezhat. “We just needed to take our time.”
He cited one of the favorite sayings of the assistant coach: Three stops, three buckets.
So gradually, the Aardvarks caught up, tying the score at 20 midway through the second and eventually take their own lead, one that grew to seven points when Pejovic-Nezhat banked in a 3-pointer from half court at the halftime buzzer.
“It was nice for it to go in,” he said, adding that he didn’t necessarily think at the time it would be a momentum boost.
“Based on the way the second half started, I think it helped.”
The Aardvarks started the second half on a 12-2 run to eventually go up 45-28.
At that point, OES appeared to have all the momentum, but it quickly turned again.
Frieze started the Bullldogs’ charge with a three-point play and then Dallton Dewey hit a 3-pointer and another bucket. The Aardvarks didn’t score over the final 5:35 of the third and when Austin Gabriel scored inside, Creswell was back in front heading to the fourth.
Jakob Wilkins scored the first six points of the fourth and Oregon Episcopal was in front the rest of the way, ultimately putting it away at the line.
That was a change from Thursday night, when OES missed 10 straight while trying to hold off De La Salle, Willmott said.
This time he was a perfect 8-for-8 and the team was 17-for-25.
Oregon Episcopal also had a 40-33 rebounding edge and finished with 10 turnovers (only five in the final three periods) to 14 for the Bulldogs.
Willmott finished with 19 points, Pejovic-Nezhat had 18, Ryan Monshi 11 and Jakob Wilkins 10 for the Aardvarks.
Frieze had 19 points, Gabriel 13 and Kai Apo nine for Creswell.
And both during the early run by Creswell and the big momentum-swinging rally by the Bulldogs in the third, the Aardvarks didn’t panic.
“We stay calm,” Willmott said. “We have faith in ourselves.
“We’ve made it this far coming back (this season). Why believe it will stop now?”
Oregon Episcopal will face another unlikely finals participant, Cascade Christian, the lowest-seeded team in the playoff bracket and another squad that wasn’t great last year, when it went just 8-17.
“This is what we’ve been playing for,” Willmott said. “We’re going to take it all in.”
Creswell, meanwhile, must try to bounce back when the Bulldogs face St. Mary’s in the third-place game Saturday afternoon.
“Right now it hurts and they’re upset,” Thomas said. “They had sights on playing in the late game tomorrow night.”
But, he added, his own senior-dominated team should appreciate that the season isn’t done yet.
“They’ve got one more game,” Thomas said. “Let’s go finish with a win.”