PENDLETON — The Irrigon Knights can finally call themselves champions.
Not of the state, though — that battle resumes next week.
Irrigon won its first district championship in any sport when the Knights dodged a rocket on Saturday, outlasting Pilot Rock 33-32 in the championship game of the boys’ basketball Blue Mountain Conference District Tournament at the Pendleton Convention Center. The defensive battle improved the Knights to 25-0 this season and sends them into the state bracket as the No. 1 overall seed.
“This is an exciting moment, to have one of these things that you’ve never had before,” said Irrigon sophomore guard Anthony Landeros, moments before being mobbed by Irrigon supporters following the game.
But Pilot Rock (21-5) had no set of marksmen either. The Rockets started the game on an 0-for-8 cold streak and shot only 25.5 percent overall.
“In championship games, the defense usually takes over a little bit there when you see a little bit of nerves,” said Pilot Rock coach Doug Baxter.
“A little bit” hardly gives Saturday’s defense its due. The BMC title game featured not just the top two offenses in the league, but the entire state for Class 2A basketball. Irrigon’s former low score for the season was 53, a full 20 points above its output against the Rockets.
So the defenses were cruising, a given between the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the state. But Irrigon has found a way to exploit even the tiniest missteps this season and did it again in the third quarter. The Knights held Pilot Rock scoreless in the quarter and soon found themselves with an eight-point lead early on in the fourth.
“Coach gave us some stuff to work on in the third quarter, but even still it was tough to hold them scoreless,” Landeros said. “I mean, they’re a really good team.”
The Rockets wouldn’t let Irrigon run away with it, though. Pilot Rock started chipping away with the score 28-20. First came a Josh Barkley jumper, then one from Tyler Simmons and then a Jason GrosJacques put-back layup with the foul. Only Fredy Vera’s basket for Irrigon in that series broke the Rockets’ scoring string.
And when Vera assisted on an Adrian Romero 3-pointer to give Irrigon some breathing room at 33-27 with three minutes to play, Pilot Rock answered with one of their own. Logan Thorne, who missed all of Pilot Rock’s season with a suspension until Saturday, swished a 3 from beyond the NBA 3-point line on the convention center’s court on the next possession.
And after Thorne came up with another basket a minute later, the gravity of the moment had started to get to the Knights. On the verge of a first in school history, the Knights had allowed consecutive steals to Pilot Rock and the Rockets took the ball trailing by one with under a minute showing on the clock.
Irrigon coach Jake McElligott called a timeout.
“Part of it was to calm their nerves, part of it was just to get their legs back,” he said.
The Rockets would miss an uncontested 3-pointer, giving the ball back to Irrigon. Several fouls later, the Knights went to the line in the free throw bonus. A missed front end of a 1-and-1 trip gave Pilot Rock one last chance. The Rockets came up short on another 3-pointer to cement the final score.
For teams known statewide for their offense, neither produced a player scoring in double digits in this one. Landeros, who was named the BMC Player of the Year following the game, scored nine as did Ernesto Aguilera. The latter also had 10 rebounds.
Pilot Rock’s GrosJacques had nine points as well and Barkley contributed seven, though he missed significant time in the second half with foul trouble before fouling out.
The Knights now account for three of Pilot Rock’s five season losses and Saturday’s antacid-requiring thriller is the second such contest between the two this season. Irrigon sneaked past Pilot Rock 68-64 in overtime in Pendleton on Jan. 12.
The two teams could very well be on a crash course for a third meeting in the Round-Up city if the state brackets stand up. The state champion will be crowned on the same Pendleton Convention Center floor on March 2.
Irrigon and Pilot Rock will play first-round games next Friday, both hosting. Each team will look to put the emotionally draining game of this weekend behind them now.
“I hope they understand they still have good stuff to do here,” Baxter said of his Rockets. “This isn’t the end of the world, it’s not like our season’s done.
“I’d like them to be upset because it’s a loss because it’s an important game, but it’s not the end of our season. If we lose the next one, though, we’re done. We need to win the next one.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.