By Alex Tam | Photos by Chris Germano
TUALATIN — There normally wouldn’t be so many questions surrounding the team that’s ranked No. 1 in both the Class 6A coaches poll and the OSAA rankings.
But for Tualatin, there they were.
How would the Timberwolves respond to a month-long layoff after the school district canceled games due to the COVID-19 surge?
Would they still be as sharp as before, when we last saw them reach the final of the Les Schwab Invitational?
And would it impact what was shaping up to be a special season?
Those questions lingered for about three minutes into Friday’s game as Tualatin fell behind by 11 points early, but then rallied and took over in the second half en route to a 69-58 victory over No. 3 West Linn to open Three Rivers League play at Tualatin High School.
“We got off to a rough start,” Tualatin senior guard Noah Ogoli said. “But we just knocked off the rust and took it to them after that.”
The Timberwolves had a whole 29 days off since their last game Dec. 30. The team wasn’t allowed to practice in person, either, leaving it up to the players to stay ready with their skills and conditioning. They stayed ready through online preparation, but for many, it was “extremely tough” to deal with in the middle of a great start to the season, said senior guard Malik Ross.
“It was tough seeing all these other scores, all these videos of all these other teams playing,” Ross said. “But a lot of us took the time to get our individual game better. We got our team chemistry better. We just used the most of the time we had to get better. But obviously you want to play and get out there, so it was tough.”
After the teams entered halftime tied 30-30, Tualatin came out of the break showing why it’s a major contender to reach the Chiles Center in March.
The Timberwolves bullied their way inside behind the size of their front line, rotating in post players Kellen Hale (6-foot-5), Peter Burke (6-5), Ashton Rose (6-7) and Jaden Steppe (6-7), who all scored and combined for 27 points, plus helped dominate the rebounding battle 32-19.
Add in the steady, yet tenacious, guard play between Ogoli, Ross and junior Josiah Lake, who combined for 39 points, and Tualatin showed off its balance and ability to beat teams in different ways.
Steppe, a sophomore, scored a quick six points to open the fourth quarter to help give the Timberwolves a 52-44 lead with 6:13 left.
West Linn junior Jackson Shelstad did his best to keep the Lions in the game, scoring 16 of his game-high 28 points in the second half.
“We were kind of slow and not really doing well offensively,” said Shelstad, rated a 4-star guard by 247Sports and who has committed to Oregon. “So, I just tried to attack and tried to get to the hoop, get fouled or get some easy buckets.”
Shelstad said he wished he could get some plays back, including two missed throws that would have cut Tualatin’s lead to three points with 4:40 to go.
“I guess I’ve got to work on my free throws,” Shelstad said.
The Lions still hung around when Shelstad scored to cut the deficit to 60-55 with 1:50 left. But Tualatin held off the comeback attempt behind back-to-back baskets by Hale and Ross, and then closed it out at the free throw line by going 5 of 8, including 4 for 4 from Lake.
“We knew we had to have a better start than the first half,” Ogoli said. “Everyone just came out with a different mentality and played as hard as they could, and jumped on them early.”
West Linn raced to a 13-2 lead in the opening minutes before Tualatin climbed back and grabbed its first lead at 28-27 with 1:12 left in the first half.
Shelstad said he felt West Linn came out “kind of sluggish” after halftime.
“That’s when they made their run,” he said. “After that, they just didn’t really look back. But I mean, that’s a good team. They were well-prepared. I give my hats off to them. They just got a lot of good athletes, a lot of size as well. (And) good guard play, who can shoot it and can get to the hoop.”
Tualatin (10-1 overall, 1-0 TRL) looks to continue the momentum from the fall after seeing several players on the basketball team help the football team reach the state championship game.
The Timberwolves got even more confidence in late December after reaching the final of the Les Schwab Invitational, where they fell to nationally ranked Link Academy, a team full of future Division I players.
“We have a lot of football guys, so everyone was eager to get back and start winning again,” said Ogoli. “We feel like we have the team to do it again and get this championship in basketball. I feel like everyone just has to do their part and lock in, and we’ll be alright.”
But they know it’s a long season still to go with 12 games left, including 11 in league, and anything can happen despite the No. 1 ranking.
“We never get comfortable, so rankings don't really matter,” Ross said. “We just know we’re one of the top teams in the state, and we’ve got to come out and play like it. We know we’ve got a target on our backs and that pushes us to go harder.”
Notes: Ogoli led Tualatin with 16 points. Ross added 14 and Hale had 12. Lake and Steppe each had nine points. … West Linn was without starting junior wing Mark Hamper, who has missed the past three weeks. … Zeke Viuhkola scored 17 points, including 13 in the first half, for the Lions. … Tualatin shot 54.2 percent from the field (26 of 48), while West Linn shot 39.6 percent (21 of 53).
Tualatin 69, West Linn 58
West Linn -- 16 -- 14 -- 11 -- 17 — 58
Tualatin -- 13 -- 17 -- 16 -- 23 — 69
West Linn — Jackson Shelstad 28, Zeke Viuhkola 17, Gabel 5, Oltmans 5, Durbin 3, Bell, Juhala, Holmes, Duea, Young, Peterse, Hobi, Shockley
Tualatin — Noah Ogoli 16, Malik Ross 14, Kellen Hale 12, Lake 9, Steppe 9, Wagner 3, Burke 3, Rose 3, Schleicher, Noland, Anderson, Chiong
Field goals: West Linn 21-53 (.396), Tualatin 26-48 (.542). Free throws: West Linn 11-16 (.688), Tualatin 13-21 (.619). Turnovers: West Linn 13, Tualatin 11.