SPOKANE — The Comets left Spokane with the third-place trophy and a very strong case that they are the second-best team in the state after coming back for an overtime quarterfinal win, taking eventual champ Odessa to the final minute, and demolishing Lummi in the third-place game at the State tournament Thursday through Saturday March 5-7.

Naselle put on a fantastic all-around performance against the Blackhawks of Lummi, showcasing their exciting offense in top form on the big stage. They also out-rebounded the Hawks, a rarity for the Comets at State tournaments. The 70-41 win, combined with Odessa’s 62-36 rout of Yakama Tribal in finals, allowed the Comets to argue that they were the state’s true number two team. Odessa had edged the Comets 62-56 Friday, as Ethan Lindstrom held the state’s all-team leading scorer to 26 points below his average. The Comets got that far because Corey Gregory brought them back from nine points down in the fourth quarter, and five down in the final minute, in Thursday’s win over Muckleshoot Tribal.

Thursday Quarterfinal: Naselle 57, Muckleshoot Tribal 50, OT

Naselle trailed by five in the final minute but tied it in regulation and controlled the overtime in quarterfinals.

With Muckleshoot ahead by five inside of 50 seconds, Warren Wirkkala spun away from his defender on the baseline, got fouled and sank a pair of free throws. Gregory, dominant on both ends of the court in the fourth quarter, forced an over-and-back at half-court with 38.1 seconds left. Gregory then nailed a three-pointer with 25.5 seconds to go. Muckleshoot missed just before the buzzer, the put-back went in too late, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period Gregory sank the dagger three for a 54-49 lead with about a minute and a half remaining, giving him 24 points for the game. Gregory then drew a charge from Darius Nichols with 30.4 seconds left to seal the deal.

Naselle trailed 39-30 early in the fourth quarter. With a big height advantage, the Kings were dominating on the offensive boards and getting some blocks from behind to erase what would normally be easy baskets for Naselle. Lamont Nichols was getting open inside against the Comet zone on his way to a 24-point night.

But Gregory brought the team back in the fourth quarter. He hit a three to cut the lead to six, then followed with an interception on the back end of a half-court press. Gregory missed a three at the other end, but the game was turning.

Gregory went on the attack on offense. He got into the lane and hit a pull-up shot to cut the lead back to six, and a three by Wirkkala cut it to 41-38.

With the Comets back down by six, Nichols had the ball near the basket after a press-break, but Gregory forced a miss and hit a layup the other way, a crucial four-point swing. Gregory bumped his way into another open shot in the lane, cutting the lead to 44-42 with 3:55 remaining.

With Muckleshoot’s lead back to 47-42 in the final minute, Nichols gave Naselle life by missing the front end at the free throw line. That set up the Comets’ tying flurry, with Wirkkala getting to the line and Gregory knocking down his trey to force overtime.

Kolby Glenn and Ethan Lindstrom kept momentum going Naselle’s way, slicing to the basket to help Naselle take a lead early in the OT. Gregory’s last three-pointer made it a five-point game with about 1:30 to go. Lindstrom and Gregory both took charges in the final stages to snuff out the Kings’ hopes.

The Comets survived despite Glenn, their top shooter, going 0-for-14 (0 for 10 from three). They overcame a rebounding deficit by forcing 21 turnovers while committing only 11. Muckleshoot put up 25 three-pointers and hit only three, but the Comets were only a little better at 7 for 27. Ethan Lindstrom’s 16 points complemented Gregory’s 24.

Gregory carried the Comets down the stretch as much with his defense as his offense.

“I just knew I had to put pressure on their ball-handlers,” he said. He sensed they would be vulnerable. “They have three freshmen in the back-court. I remember my first time here (at State) just the nerves and seeing everybody in the stands.”

In doing so, Gregory reminded the tournament field that the Comets have multiple players who can dominate a game. Lindstrom won league MVP and Glenn is a unique offensive threat who put up 27 second-half points to crush Riverside in Regionals, but Gregory has taken over many games over the years and did it again Thursday.

“If I’m struggling or if Ethan’s struggling, we always know we have other guys who can step up,” Glenn said.

Friday Semifinal: Odessa 62, Naselle 56

Odessa, led by Ryan Moffet, came in at 25-0 after surviving a tough 42-39 contest with 10-seed Almira-Coulee-Hartline. Moffet, a deadly shooter who broke Brock Ravet’s Washington state career scoring record this year, came in averaging 31.8 points per game. He has a supporting cast full of accomplished athletes; Odessa football stars like Marcus King, who ran for 380 yards against Naselle in Odessa’s win in the football championship game, all become complementary players during the winter, taking a back seat to Moffet.

Moffet can make a shot from just about anywhere and, with his quick trigger, can take advantage of even a tiny cushion. The task for Naselle was to keep him from getting off shots. While the priority against Moffet is to take away long-range shots, any great scorer can beat you in multiple ways. Coach Bill Olsen agonized over whom to assign the exhausting task of guarding Moffet, but even on a team with several elite athletes, the only real choice was their long-time ace perimeter defender, Ethan Lindstrom. He has the ability to take away shots even while deterring drives and instantly adjusting to fakes.

“I struggled to figure out who to put on Moffet,” coach Bill Olsen said. “We’ve got some athletes and I had to pick one. I didn’t want to put Ethan on him because what he does on offense is so important to us. But in the end, I asked myself who’s our glue guy who can really just stick to someone, and that was Ethan.”

Lindstrom held Moffet to five shot attempts, no free throws, six points and one assist. Despite the exhausting task of guarding Moffet, he had energy on offense. Guarded by King, he led the team with 16 points on six of 11 shooting, hitting some contested mid-range shots against a stingy Odessa defense that often wouldn’t yield anything else.

“To do what he did is just impossible,” Olsen said. He noted that Lindstrom got the intricacies of his task just right: “He played off him just enough to deny him the ball.”

“It’s just a grind, really more mentally than physically,” Lindstrom said of chasing Moffet around screens and darting cuts out to 30 feet or more from the basket. “My teammates, especially Corey Gregory, if I went around a screen a little late they were there picking me up.”

But Lindstrom basically liberated his teammates from help defense against the primary threat for the Tigers.

To unleash Lindstrom fully on Moffet, Olsen had to revamp his defense overnight, going to a diamond-and-one that they hadn’t played all year.

“It was basically a 1-2-1 zone,” Lindstrom said, with only Lindstrom playing man defense. This meant the four in the “diamond” had to fly around to cover ground quickly.

“Ethan’s defense was just absolutely perfect,” Caleb Haataia said. “We (in the diamond) just had to move quickly and help in the zone as quickly as we could.”

With Moffet shut down for the first time in at least three years, the Tigers showed they are a multidimensional team. The Comets faced the same size disadvantages they do against most teams at State. Center Tim DeWulf, 6’3” and very strong in the low post, was a supporting player all year, averaging a modest 7.7 points per game but shooting 61%. On Friday he stepped up when the Tigers needed him, going six of seven, and Odessa outrebounded Naselle 33-17. Jett Nelson got open against the diamond to hit four first-half threes.

The Tigers took a 14-5 lead, but Lindstrom hit a pair of threes, Jimmy Strange ripped away an offensive rebound for a put-back, and Gregory tipped a Nelson pass at half-court and got a lay-in out of it to cut it to 18-15 with about two minutes left in the first quarter. DeWulf got the lead back to seven at 22-15, scoring on a press-break at the end of the quarter.

Kolby Glenn hit back-to-back threes for a 29-27 Comet lead, then nailed another three to tie it at 32. Nelson’s fourth three-pointer of the half put Odessa in front at halftime 35-32.

Whereas the Comets had overcome their rebounding deficit against Muckleshoot tribal by forcing turnovers, Odessa was taking care of the ball, committing only 11 turnovers. Instead, Naselle was surviving by hitting threes, going eight of 15 in the first half.

In the third quarter, the Comets did not hit a three-pointer as Odessa stretched the lead. Lindstrom kept Naselle within striking distance. He drove, drew the defense and handed to Gregory for a bucket, buried a heavily contested jumper, and scored on a backdoor lob from Glenn. He stuffed a Moffet three-point attempt early in the fourth.

The Tigers still led 51-42 after three quarters and 55-45 with 5:56 in the fourth quarter, but Naselle went on an 8-0 run. Glenn probed the defense and found Gregory, who hit a three. Caleb Haataia came with a double-team to force a miss by DeWulf, then drove the baseline and hit a scoop shot at the other end. Wirkkala took a charge from DeWulf, and Glenn hit a deep three to cut it to two with 4:40 remaining. Haataia stuffed King near the rim, but Gregory’s open three in transition at the other end went in and out with 3:15 left.

Caleb Haataia, after years of playing junior-varsity, reached the fringe of the varsity roster during his senior year and finally got regular playing time late in the regular season and throughout the post-season run. Now he was playing crunch time minutes in the state semifinal game guarding Marcus King and Tim DeWulf.

Olsen, always flexible with his rotation depending on matchups and situation, said Haataia was always prepared for this moment.

“Caleb works very hard, stays after practice,” Olsen said. “I knew by watching him he has tools that can help us in this situation. I talked to him throughout the season, and I’d tell him there’ll be a time in the playoffs when we’ll need to bring our ninth guy off the bench, to give us a spark, and that’s what he’s done this post-season.”

After the game, Caleb, emotional after the close loss, mentioned his late grandfather and long-time supporter, Gilbert Haataia, who died last November.

“It was a good experience,” Haataia said of playing at State. “I’ve worked hard for a long time. And everything I’ve done was for my grandpa.”

With Moffet still locked down by Lindstrom and Haataia and Wirkkala furiously protecting the rim, Odessa’s supporting players hit a couple of tough crunch-time shots to keep the Tigers on the path to a championship.

King nailed a contested, off-balance shot with five on the shot clock that stretched the lead to four. King missed a similar shot against Haataia next time down. Naselle got within three when Lindstrom hit one of two free throws after being fouled on a layup. Glenn nearly stole the ball, getting his hands on a pass, but couldn’t hang on. DeWulf went outside his normal range to hit a crucial 17-footer, making it a 59-54 game with 1:05 left.

Caleb Haataia then missed a three, but Naselle still had life. Lindstrom and Gregory trapped Moffet behind half-court; Moffet got a pass to Camden Weber at half-court, where Wirkkala took a charge from Weber. Glenn then found a path through traffic and got the roll on a scoop shot, cutting it to 59-56 with 32.7 seconds left.

Naselle tried to force another turnover but could not, finally fouling King with 9.2 seconds left. King hit the first free throw, and DeWulf put back his miss on the second for a six-point final margin.

Moffet had been remarkably consistent in his production, scoring between 25 and 38 points in all but two games this season. He had not scored fewer than 17 points in a game in the past three years.

Saturday Third-Place Game: Naselle 70, Lummi 41

Naselle went up against the Lummi Blackhawks. Led by Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Assn 1B Player of the Year Caleb Revey, the Hawks came in at 25-4 after a heart-breaking semifinal loss to Yakama Nation Tribal Friday, in a game that was headed to overtime until a foul on a half-court shot at the buzzer.

The Comets’ offense, characterized for years by small ball, pretty passing sequences, athletic play, and sharp shooting, put on its show. Against a strong opponent, they didn’t get as many easy baskets as they do in the regular season, but they had their classic rhythm and knocked down tough shots. Glenn, as is often the case, was the instigator, with 17 points and five assists. Chase Haataia got tough shots to fall in a 14-point night with six of ten shooting. Warren Wirkkala went three of three from beyond the arc.

Naselle set an early tone. Gregory pulled up in the lane and scored, and Haataia took a charge and hit a three for a 5-0 lead. With the opening quarter winding down, Glenn a Steph Curry-like dancing move, the kind that magically creates space even though everyone in the arena can see the shot he’s setting up, and nailed it at the buzzer for a 17-9 lead.

Glenn hit another one on a similar play to stretch it to 22-9, then dribbled around a half-court double-team and kicked it to Wirkkala for three and a 25-12 lead. Haataia hit a falling-down three from the corner, which would have been a four-point play chance in a more tightly-called game, making it 35-18 at half. Haataia would add a falling-down fade-away shot from mid-range and a turn-around fader on his offensive rebound, finishing with 14 points on six of 10 shooting.

Revey had a strong performance with 16 points on 7 of 14 shooting, a game-high five steals and a team-high six rebounds. As usual at State, the Comets faced a size mismatch in 6’5” Tyrell Lane, who went 4 for 6. But the ‘Hawks couldn’t match the Comets’ firepower, and Naselle even won the rebounding battle 39-26 as Gregory pulled down 12 boards.

The Comets got into the lane against the reeling Blackhawks in the third quarter. Gregory scored off a steal by Strange. Glenn, who seems to relish going for the kill, went straight down the lane for a three-point play to make it 43-20. Strange went hard at the hoop, got fouled, and hit two free throws for a 45-20 lead with 4:15 in the third quarter.

“They didn’t seem to have much energy, and we took advantage of that,” Glenn said.

Lane kept fighting, so much so that he fouled out despite the lax officiating. He spent several seconds hooking arms with Wirkkala, then bumped into him to finally get called for his fifth foul in the final minute of the third quarter. Jack Ruch then got behind the defense and scored to make it 53-24 after three.

Wirkkala knocked down his second and third threes of the game in the fourth quarter. The offensive symphony reached a crescendo on a length-of-the-court, no-dribbles, two-passes play as Lindstrom caught Gregory’s in-bound at the half-court sideline and fired to Haataia under the basket for two and a 63-27 lead with 4:33 left, at which time Coach Olsen declared victory by emptying his bench.

“We wanted to show that if Odessa weren’t here, it’d be us for State (champion),” Lindstrom said.

Almira-Coulee-Hartline could make a similar argument with a quarterfinal loss to Odessa, but their resume lost some of its luster with a loss to Oakesdale in the fourth-place game.

Naselle finished the season 20-7. In 1B games, their only loss besides the Odessa game was to Taholah, a team that was eliminated from State Wednesday in a double-overtime loss, also to Oakesdale. The Comets played up for their non-league schedule, going against strong 2Bs and an elite Oregon 2A. They beat Wahkiakum, which made it to Spokane in the 2B field, and Winlock, which nearly made the field and took second in the Central League.

Aaron Mead is a sports writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact him at 360-642-8181 or aaroncmead@gmail.com.

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