PORTLAND – Not that West Linn's boys basketball team is lacking for confidence, but the Lions had their reservations about facing South Medford in the quarterfinals of the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credi Union 6A tournament Wednesday at the Chiles Center.
The dangerous Panthers, who had not lost to an Oregon team this season, were somewhat of an unknown quantity to teams in the Portland area.
“At the end of the year, and everybody's checking the rankings, they were one of the teams where I'm like, 'I want to stay away from them,'” West Linn coach Eric Viuhkola said. “And then we got them.”
But the No. 5 seed Lions (21-3) were up to the challenge, scoring the game's first 11 points and never relinquishing the lead for a 56-39 win. West Linn advances to the Friday semifinals to play Three Rivers League rival Tualatin, the top seed.
Lions junior point guard Jackson Shelstad had 26 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals and senior guard Zeke Viuhkola added 16 points and six rebounds. West Linn held South Medford – which entered averaging 67.9 points – to a season-low total.
“I'm really proud of my team,” the Oregon-bound Shelstad said. “Guarded the ball, played defense really well. I think we were just hungry. We wanted to be the toughest team, so we showed that.”
With the Lions sticking to them, the No. 4 Panthers (23-3) shot 35.9 percent.
“I thought defensively that was one of our best efforts of the year,” Eric Viuhkola said. “We locked in. I know they didn't shoot as well as they normally do, because I've seen a lot of tape where they're making shots all over the place.”
South Medford coach James Wightman said his team “ran into buzzsaw.” With the Panthers trailing 13-1, he said he had flashbacks to when the teams met in the 2016 championship game and West Linn took a 23-0 lead on its way to a 74-48 win.
“We couldn't make a shot at the start of the game,” Wightman said. “There was a lid on there, for sure. We just didn't play smart. That wasn't our best effort, for sure.”
The 6-foot Shelstad started slow – missing his first five shots from three-point range – but heated up as the game progressed. He hit a three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half for a 28-22 lead, then scored 11 points in the third quarter as West Linn expanded its advantage to 44-32. He finished 9 of 18 from the field, including 4 of 10 from behind the arc.
“Second half, I kind of got it going a little bit,” said Shelstad, who leads 6A in scoring with a 26.9 average.
As he has for much of the season, Shelstad dictated the action.
“When best player in the state is a guard … he controls the whole game,” Wightman said. “You can try to jump someone else on him, double the ball, but he's going to go find the open guy. Everything goes through Jackson.”
South Medford closed to within one point four times, but on each occasion, the Lions responded. They closed the third quarter with an 8-0 run, and when Viuhkola hit a three-pointer with 5:23 left, West Linn was in command at 51-34.
“We always just talk about our poise and our mental toughness,” Zeke Viuhkola said. “We know that the other teams go on runs, and we've just got to stay in it and keep playing our game, and we'll take care of business.”
The Panthers got 16 points from 6-3 freshman guard Boden Howell, who made three three-pointers, two from NBA range. Howell, who is averaging 14.5 points, showed why he was a Southwest Conference first-team pick.
“Only a freshman. He's got a lot of potential,” Shelstad said. “He can shoot from deep, and he's got that fadeaway shot down. He's a good player.”
Count Eric Viuhkola among those impressed by Howell.
“I think he's a Pac-12 player,” he said. “I mean, he's special. When he makes it from where Steph Curry's shooting them, you can't get mad.”
South Medford 6-3 senior forward Devon Malcolm flashed his tremendous athleticism with four blocked shots, but struggled to find his offense and finished with five points, well of his 15.5 average. With Lions junior Mark Hamper shadowing him, Malcolm made 1 of 5 shots and had five turnovers.
“I thought Hamper did an unbelievable job on him,” Eric Viuhkola said. “We just said, 'Hey, we don't want him getting any just right-at-the-basket dunks. If he makes shots over us, tip the cap, but just no easy ones.'”
But Malcolm's impressive blocks had the Lions looking over the shoulder for him.
“You've got to be really careful when you're going inside, just knowing where he's at,” Zeke Viuhkola said.
South Medford, which was making its first tournament appearance since falling to West Linn in the 2016 final, also got eight points from freshman Drew Hall and seven points from senior Junior Sleezer.
It was West Linn's first game in the tournament since reaching the semifinals in 2017. The Lions, who won four consecutive titles from 2013 to 2016, made the quarterfinals in 2020 before the tournament was canceled.
The return to play at the Chiles Center on Wednesday was a welcome experience for all.
“It's a new experience. No one really has that experience,” Zeke Viuhkola said. “So just getting the first game and having all those nerves settled, just getting used to it, it's a big change to get used to.”
Now the Lions will get ready for another meeting with Tualatin. They lost at Tualatin 69-58 on Jan. 28 and fell at home to the Timberwolves 68-66 in overtime on Feb. 22, unable to hold a 12-point, second-half lead.
“I think it's meant to be,” Eric Viuhkola said of facing the Timberwolves. “I think they're the best team in the state, but I know if we play the right way, I think we can beat them as well as anybody else in the state.”
Said Shelstad: “I'm super excited. They're a really good team, they're ranked No. 1. Third time, I'm excited to get another shot. We'll see how it goes.”