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Cougars drop 2 but won when it counted

John Michaels
IVN Contributing Writer

The Illinois Valley Cougars won the single game they needed to, defeating the Central Linn Cobras 49-45 in Valley Coast Conference playoff game Wednesday in Cave Junction and grabbed a 2A state-playoff berth. Although the Cougars dropped their next two VCC playoff games, the losses did little to impact their spot in the state tournament. The Cougars would have had to have beaten both East Linn Christian and Oakland on back-to-back nights and won the Valley Coast championship in order to alter their play-off seeding.
The Cougars go into the tournament as the #14 seed. They will face the third-seed Portland Christian Royals in Portland Friday.
The game against Central Linn was a back-and forth game that saw neither team lead by more than six points. The Cobras were fighting for their play-off lives, as a loss essentially eliminated them from contention. Although I.V. conceivably would have made the team as an “at-large” qualifier with a loss, coach Tony Hess did not want to leave that to chance.
“To be honest, the one word that comes to my mind after this game is ‘relieved,’” Hess said with a chuckle. “We didn’t want to take a chance because you never know how the power rankings will change in the last evaluation. We felt like we needed to win tonight.”
Central Linn scored first, and never trailed in the first quarter, leading 12-11 at the end of the initial period. Illinois Valley kept the pressure on, but the Cobras built the lead to five at 18-13 when Cody Dickerson hit a jumper with 4:45 to play in the half.
The Cougars turned up the defense and held Central Linn scoreless until Dickerson put in an offensive rebound with five seconds left before the intermission. Senior Daniel Polk took over the game, scoring five points in a row, culminating with a lay-up after a Jesse Connell steal to tie the game at 18-18.
Keegan Russell gave Illinois Valley its first lead of the game with basket with 32 seconds remaining in the half. Dickerson’s put back tied the game at 20-20 heading into the break.
The third period was a lively give and take tussle with three ties and four lead changes. Connell hit a 3-pointer to put the I.V. up 33-30 with 15 seconds left in the quarter, but the Cobras’ Nolen Eversol hit a shot with four seconds left to make it 33-32 at the end of the third.
I.V. got a pair of treys from Brendyn Bruner, who had been held scoreless in the first half. Bruner’s 3-pointer from the right corner with 5:30 left were the first points win the last period and gave the Cougars a 36-32 lead. Bruner hit another dagger three from the same spot with 1:11 left that essentially cut the head off the Cobras giving the Illinois Valley a 46-40 lead and forcing the Central Linn to take 3-point shots on offense and to foul on defense for the rest of the game.
“Hitting that first one, that felt really good,” Bruner said. “My shot wasn’t falling early, but the guys had my back. Our teamwork tonight was amazing.”
Thanks to a couple of missed I.V. charity shots, the Cobras came back and when Eversol hit a three-pointer with 24 seconds left, the Cougars, advantage was down to 47-45.
After a time-out, Central Linn committed a foul on Bruner and he went to the line with 18 seconds left. Bruner nailed the first shot, but missed the second one rimmed out. Fortunately, Zack Dugas grabbed the rebound for I.V., and got the ball back to Bruner, who was immediately fouled again.
“I got position on the guy, but I got a really good bounce as well,” Dugas said. “I was just trying to bring whatever I could to the team to help us win.”
Bruner again hit one of his two free throws, making the final score 49-45 and sending the Cougars to the 2A State play-offs.
Polk scored 20 points to lead the Cougars. Bruner added 10 for Illinois Valley, while Connell chipped in 5. Dugas and Russell each pitched in 4 points while Connor Talty and Stevann Terry had a basket apiece.
The remaining tournament games were played at a neutral site, Sutherlin High School. The Cougars went on to their next VCC tournament game Friday at against East Linn Christian. The fifth-ranked Eagles, who went on to win the Valley Coast Conference championship, defeated I.V. 63-41.
Whether it was East Linn Christian being that good, or the Cougars on a lull after the emotional Central Linn win, or a combination of both, the Eagles dominated the game from start to finish winning every quarter.
East Linn Christian jumped to an 18-9 lead after one period and extended the lead to 34-15 at the half. Though much closer, the Eagles also won both of the final two quarters to set up their re-match with Oakland for the championship.
Terry was the only Cougar in double figures for the game, as he tallied 10. Polk was held way below his season average and finished with nine. Connell added 6 and Talty had 5. Bruner and Dugas each chipped in 3 points while Russell and Trenton Davis got a bucket a piece. Tanner Brazil closed out the I.V. scoring with a free throw.
In the VCC third place game, the Lowell Devils took advantage of the Cougars’ missing a senior starter in Talty, who was unable to play due to illness, and seemed to get a number of questionable officiating calls go their way in a tense 75-72 win over Illinois Valley.
The game was tightly contested throughout. The teams were separated by a single point at 20-19 in favor of Lowell after one quarter. The Devils made a huge run outpacing I.V. 7-2 over a minute and a half in the second quarter to take a 40-31 lead with 2:15 left in the half, but Polk scored 4 points and Terry hit a free throw in the last two minutes while the Cougars held Lowell scoreless to go into the intermission down by just four 40-36.
I.V. scored the first 5 points of the second half to take a 41-40 lead, and it was a scrap the rest of the way. The two teams battled back and forth, with no quarter given for the remainder of the game. But the Devils did appear to get some breaks from the officials. After Terry tied the game at 50-50 with two free throws, Lowell’s Rowan Files appeared to commit a charge and knocked down I.V.’s Brantley Arroyo while driving to the basket. No foul was called and Files basket gave the Devils a 52-50 lead,
With 2.1 seconds left in the quarter, Terry appeared to tip the ball on the Devils’ Wyatt Smith’s 3-point attempt. Instead of a blocked shot, Terry was whistled for a phantom foul and Smith went to the line for three free throws. Smith hit the first two, but missed the third one and Lowell’s Alex Straits grab bed the rebound and tossed it in just as the buzzer sounded. The 4-point swing gave the Devils a 58-52 lead heading into the final eight minutes.
In the final frame, the Cougars would get as close as one point, but would never get the lead. The final nail in the coffin was another questionable call against I.V. The Cougars were trailing 73-71 with less than a minute left in the game. Polk had the ball in the key and appeared to be fouled as he was muscling up for a shot. Instead of getting two free throws and a chance to tie the game, Polk was called for an offensive foul. It was his fifth foul of the game and sent him to the bench.
Coach Hess was courteous in defeat. “We were missing one of our main guys, but we played well. Lowell is a good team. Yes, we would like to have won the game and you want to go into the state tournament with a win, but ultimately this game doesn’t change anything. The third team from the conference is going to the play-offs and so is the fourth place team. The power rankings determine your opponent, not your place in the conference.”
Polk finished with 29 points before his disqualification. Dugas had 13 points and both Bruner and Russel hit double figures with 10. Terry with seven and Davis with two closed out the Cougar scoring.