TUALATIN – The season has been far from ideal for two-time reigning 6A boys basketball champion Tualatin, but as the playoffs approach, one of the Timberwolves' primary goals is in sight.
Injury-plagued Tualatin notched one of its most important wins of the season Friday night, turning back visiting Oregon City 77-65 in a game between teams tied for first place in the Three Rivers League.
The fourth-ranked Timberwolves (14-6, 5-1) raced to a 14-2 lead — hitting their first four three-point attempts, two by senior wing Jaden Steppe and two by sophomore point guard Jemai Lake – and spent the rest of the game fending off the Pioneers (12-6, 4-2).
“The kids were really excited,” Tualatin coach Bubba Lemon said. “They came out fired up and ready to go. What a way to open the game.”
The win puts the Timberwolves one game ahead of Oregon City, Lakeridge (14-6, 4-2) and West Linn (9-10, 4-2) with four games remaining. Tualatin, which won both meetings against Oregon City, plays at Lakeridge on Feb. 16 and at West Linn on Feb. 20.
'This is our main priority," Lake said. "Every game now is a league championship for us.”
The 6-foot-8 Steppe not only scored a game-high 28 points, raising his season average to 21.1, but he sliced up Oregon City's defense with eight assists. The Colorado State-bound Steppe has been showcasing his passing ability all season, averaging about seven assists per game.
“When you're getting double- and triple-teamed every game, you kind of get used to it,” Steppe said. “At the start of the season, teams just started to triple-team me, but when they realized my teammates are good, they stopped. So it's kind of back to normal now.”
Lake said that Steppe has taken more of a play-making role this season after the graduation of point guard Josiah Lake, Jemai's brother, who now plays at Oregon State.
“He's having a hell of a season,” Lake said of Steppe, who has signed with Colorado State. “He has something to prove, especially since Jojo left, and he's kind of been taking over the team. He has really good court vision. He helps a lot with spot-up corner shooters and cutters. He's mid-air, and he just finds someone.”
In Friday's game, the 6-0 Lake scored 17 points and hounded Oregon City's backcourt with relentless on-ball pressure. In the highlight of the night, Lake poked the ball loose from behind an Oregon City player and saved it from going out of bounds with a behind-the-back pass to a streaking Steppe, who threw down a resounding dunk.
“He's obviously going to be a problem for the next two years, and hopefully me and him can get one this year,” Steppe said of Lake. “He fixed his shot this last year. Fixed the whole rotation, which is really hard to do. Jemai's just going to get better and better. And once he gets that grown-man size, it's going to be impossible to guard him. And it's already hard.”
Tualatin needed Lake to grow up fast this season, and he has responded.
“It feels like I was down here at the start of the season, and now I'm up,” said Lake, who had a 41-point game against 3A No. 1 Cascade Christian at the Les Schwab Invitational. “I'm not as nervous as much. I'm just playing.”
The Timberwolves are missing two returning starters from last year's team in senior guard Jayden Fortier, out all season with a torn ACL suffered in the 6A football final, and senior guard AJ Noland, out since late December with knee soreness.
Noland, who had surgery on both knees last April and played through the soreness in football, said he will miss the rest of the regular season but is hopeful to return for the playoffs.
Tualatin got a boost with the return of 6-5 junior forward Nolan Keeney, who played his third game Friday after coming back from a broken collarbone suffered in football. He scored 10 points against Oregon City.
Lake said the team's chemistry is improving.
“We've kind of grown a lot since all the injuries,” Lake said. “We started learning how to go as a team without AJ and Jayden Fortier, and then we just got Keeney back, which made us go up a little bit.”
Steppe, a key player on the last two state title teams, said Tualatin has not played its best basketball.
“Not yet. We still have things to work on defensively,” Steppe said. “But you're not supposed to be playing your best basketball right now. I think we're about to peak at the right time, so I'm excited.”
Lemon has challenged his team to play a complete 32 minutes.
“Sometimes we get a little bit lax, and we've just got to keep our foot on the pedal the whole time,” Lemon said. “That's going to be one our biggest focuses the rest of the year is just finishing games.”
Oregon City was looking to avenge a 57-41 home loss to Tualatin but was unable to recover from the slow start. Gylan Payne, a 6-4 junior guard, led the Pioneers with 26 points, 20 coming in the second half.