After a regular season that some might describe as an underachievement, the Central Catholic Rams are making their move in the playoffs.
Much like in the fall, when seventh-seeded Central Catholic advanced all the way to the Class 6A football state title game, the No. 22 Rams played the role of underdog to perfection Tuesday, going on the road and knocking off No. 11 Tualatin 62-53 in a boys basketball first-round matchup.
“It’s a new season and a way different sport, but we had the confidence that we could make it all the way, and if we continue with that confidence, I believe we can,” said senior Amari Hale, who was the leading rusher on Central Catholic’s football team.
Hale led all scorers Tuesday with 27 points, including a 17-of-21 performance from the free throw line. Seniors Malik Thirdgill and DeAndre Smith -- who started at tight end and quarterback, respectively, on the gridiron -- each tallied 12 points.
Tualatin was led by junior guard Alexis Angeles, who finished with 22.
The Timberwolves, who entered having won 8 of their past 10, were resilient throughout. Smith's three-pointer at the end of the third quarter gave the Rams their largest lead, but Tualatin crept back in the final stanza.
“There was a point when we were up by eight and we had an opportunity to break it open, and Tualatin, a great team, they came and took the lead back in the fourth quarter,” Rams coach David Blue said.
With 5:33 remaining and the Rams up 44-40, things got interesting for the home team.
“They came and punched us in the mouth in the fourth quarter,” Blue said.
Angeles hit a massive three-pointer, the Timberwolves forced a five-second call, and Donovan Tafua, who played big all night, scored on a putback to give Tualatin a 45-44 lead.
“Earlier (in the season) we would’ve folded, but tonight our seniors kept it together and their leadership and toughness mentally really brought us back,” Blue said.
Central Catholic regained the lead and stretched it to 53-47 with two minutes to go when Hale made his finest defensive play of the game, sniffing out Angeles' mid-range jumper — a shot he had lived on all night — and blocking it to gain possession.
“The one where Alexis came across the top and Amari blocked his jump shot was just a huge momentum shifter,” Blue said.
Angeles was Tualatin’s greatest weapon on offense. After he got to the line a few times in the first half, Thirdgill dictated that Hale should guard him each possession. Angeles kept scoring, primarily on jump shots following a screen, but Hale got his number at a pivotal moment.
“I think I’m a pretty good defender,” Hale said. “I could tell when he was going to pull up.”
Hale secured the win by hitting free throw after free throw after free throw. He was 10 for 13 from the line in the fourth quarter.
“All this week, I was trying to focus on knocking down free throws because I knew that was going to be big for us,” he said. “At the beginning of this season, I missed a lot of free throws and I was like, ‘That’s not acceptable.’ So, I came out and focused on knocking those down.”
Tualatin has a solid front line led by Tafua, but the only true big the Rams consistently play is 6-foot-4 post Thirdgill. To emphasize the importance of playing big, Blue put the word, “Rebound,” on the board before the game.
“In the first half, we struggled, giving up a lot of O-boards,” Blue said. “In the second half, we had five guys (rebounding), guys on the ground. It meant something to them and that was really fun to see.”
Everyone, indeed, was rebounding. Hale is a 6-foot-1 guard, but he used his athleticism to snag some crucial boards.
“I usually don’t really get rebounds and I was like, ‘It’s playoffs now. Win or go home,’ so I gotta do something,” Hale said. “I tried to help Malik Thirdgill on the glass because he does a great job rebounding.”
The Timberwolves, who suffered a one-point first-round loss as a No. 22 seed last year, ended their season with a 16-8 record.
Central Catholic is the lowest-seeded team left in the playoffs and will travel to West Salem on Friday to play the No. 6 Titans, who defeated No. 27 Sheldon 71-59 on Tuesday.
The Rams have not fared well against top teams this season, but they hope to have enough magic to pull off another upset.
As Hale said before leaving Tualatin: “Next 32 minutes.”
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