The Hermiston Bulldogs may have had the first three baskets of the game — opening up a 8-1 lead — but the Pendleton Buckaroos had the last laugh, taking the Columbia River Conference rivalry game 59-53 on the road Tuesday and securing the regular-season conference crown.
Pendleton (16-4, 8-0 CRC) holds a four-game lead in league games ahead of Hermiston (5-13, 4-4 CRC) and, having beaten the Bulldogs in all three meetings thus far, can’t be knocked from the top spot.
The victory that put Pendleton over the top came by the narrowest point margin for the Bucks since league play opened. Hermiston’s defense — tops in the conference in points allowed despite their nasty overall record — gave up their season average of 59 points. That part was expected, Pendleton guard Darius Polhamus said. To win a game against a good defense, the Bucks needed to meet the adversity head-on with pressure ‘D’ of their own, he said.
The Bulldogs started the season 1-10 before a hitting the win column more regularly in the last month. Tuesday’s loss broke a three-game winning streak for Hermiston.
Hermiston junior Alex Ortiz credited the turnaround to a renewed defensive intensity. They keep opponents’ points down with hustle and a little flash — such as Ortiz’s pair of monster blocks on Pendleton’s 6-foot-10 center Bryan Beard.
“We’re working on defense and coach (Adam Strom) is really making it clear that we need to play better defensively if we want to win,” said Ortiz, who also had a game-high 20 points.
Hermiston hung with the Bucks in the second half, matching them point for point. The Bulldogs crawled to within four points at 55-51 before free throws handed the Bucks the battle.
Though defense was the star, there were impressive offensive performances as well, including Pendleton’s big games from Deon Davis and Polhamus at point. Davis scored 19 points on 5-for-5 shooting from inside the 3-point arc and Polhamus added 14 points. Beard picked up 12 rebounds and 13 points.
Most of those players’ scoring came in the first and fourth quarters. The Bucks netted 38 of their 59 and Hermiston had 37 of their 53 in the book-ends.
“The game just kind of flowed that way, we didn’t design it that way,” Pendleton’s Bryan Beard said. “(For me), the first and fourth was when I was getting the looks I needed at the basket.”