PENDLETON — The Pilot Rock boys basketball team looked like they were destined for another overtime date with Irrigon as the Knights’ Jose Romero sent up a 3-point ball at the end of regulation Saturday, a shot that would tie the game if made. The buzzer’s ringing blare in the ears of the players was replaced by celebratory screams from Irrigon fans as they watched Romero’s shot bank off the glace and in.
Lost amid the commotion in the Pendleton Convention Center, the referees in the Blue Mountain Conference District Tournament's third-place game were waving off the basket. Romero hadn’t had time to catch and shoot in the 0.3 seconds left in regulation.
The game was over. Pilot Rock had won 51-48. Romero was crushed; he collapsed to the floor.
The loss ends the season for Irrigon (15-10, 9-5 BMC), but Pilot Rock earns the third spot out of the conference to head to the state playoffs.
The last time the Rockets (20-5, 11-3 BMC) and Knights met on Feb. 4, it took three overtimes to decide a winner. Saturday’s contest was no less excruciating on the nerves, Pilot Rock’s Jason GrosJacques said.
After trailing nearly every second of the first 30 minutes of play. Pilot Rock turned on the jets with a full-court press in the late moments. A deficit that was as large as nine soon became just six, then two. That’s when GrosJacques struck with the two most crucial of his five points. He ripped the ball from an Irrigon player on the Knights’ end of the court and a few steps later was laying it in to the hoop to tie the game at 48.
“The adrenaline’s going and I just saw him stay in place and not step to the ball,” he said. “I was able to take my move and get in front of him.”
He and the other Rockets never let up and forced a bad pass on the ensuing in-bounds play and a turnover. On the Rockets’ next possession, D’Marcus Bowie hit a short shot inside the key to take the lead for good.
Tyler Simmons ended the day with a game-high 19 points for Pilot Rock, including a steal and lay-up at the bell of the first half. The ball looked to be in his hand when the clock hit zero, but that buzzer-beater counted as the teams went to the locker room.
Logan Thorne added 16 points for the winners and 10 rebounds while Francisco Nunez topped the Knights with 14 points. Ernesto Aguilera brought down 14 rebounds for Irrigon.
The Rockets’ comeback was sparked by defense — which forced 25 turnovers, highlighted by Thorne’s five steals — and gave Pilot Rock the opportunities to score. They took advantage of it with 19 points in the final frame.
"When we went to that full-court pressure, we rattled them a little bit,” Pilot Rock coach Doug Baxter said. “They were able to get after guys and they made me look smart tonight.”
Pilot Rock’s first state playoff game will be on Saturday, Feb. 25.