Grays Harbor sophomore Michael Sampson dunks for two of his game-high 25 points in the Chokers’ 91-74 victory over Highline on Wednesday in Aberdeen. The victory secured Grays Harbor’s first spot in the NWAC Tournament in 12 years. (Ryan Sparks | Grays Harbor News Group)

Grays Harbor sophomore Michael Sampson dunks for two of his game-high 25 points in the Chokers’ 91-74 victory over Highline on Wednesday in Aberdeen. The victory secured Grays Harbor’s first spot in the NWAC Tournament in 12 years. (Ryan Sparks | Grays Harbor News Group)

Grays Harbor earns spot in NWAC Tournament with win over Highline

In only his second season at the helm of the Grays Harbor College men’s basketball team, head coach Matt Vargas has done something that has eluded the Chokers for over a decade: Earn a spot in the Northwest Athletic Conference Tournament.

With Wednesday’s 91-74 victory over the Highline Thunderbirds in Aberdeen, the Chokers finish the regular season with their first winning record and first tournament berth since the 2007-08 campaign.

“Man, what a night,” said an exuberant Vargas after the Chokers steamrolled their way into the postseason. “This is what (Chokers players) signed up for, for an opportunity to go to the next level and be a part of something and there is honor and life lessons to be learned from that. … This is their time to be in the sun. I’m happy for the college and the community.”

The Chokers (16-13 overall, 7-7 NWAC West) didn’t get off to the start they were hoping for in what was a must-win game if Grays Harbor’s season was to continue. Grays Harbor fell behind 13-7 with just under five minutes of game time elapsed, causing Vargas to have a quick word with his players.

“I cussed ‘em out and challenged their manhood,” Vargas said of his early-game motivational attempt. “My kids can play with anybody, we’ve proven that, but these are young men and if a butterfly is flying in the gym and you call a play, they look at the butterfly. It’s nothing more than I’m trying to get something out of them to get them going, keep them going and keep them focused.”

The strategy paid off as Grays Harbor’s defense began to bottleneck the dribble-penetration of Highline guard Mahlik Hall after struggling to do so earlier.

The Chokers tied the game at 13-13 on a Antoine Hines pull up jumper with 13:41 left in the half and took a 16-14 lead on a Zachary Marrotte 3-pointer two minutes later.

Grays Harbor sophmore Zachary Marrotte rises for a layup during the Chokers’ victory over Highline on Wednesday at Grays Harbor College. Marrotte scored 15 points in the contest. (Ryan Sparks | Grays Harbor News Group)

Grays Harbor sophmore Zachary Marrotte rises for a layup during the Chokers’ victory over Highline on Wednesday at Grays Harbor College. Marrotte scored 15 points in the contest. (Ryan Sparks | Grays Harbor News Group)

Several ties and lead changes occurred over the next several minutes of the first half, but with the game tied at 23 the Chokers made their move. Grays Harbor went on a 9-0 run capped by a pair of free throws by Michael Sampson to take a 32-23 lead with 3:26 left in the half.

After Hall hit a pair of free throws, the Chokers extended the lead on a three from Tristan Schoepf followed by another Sampson free throw.

With less than a minute to go and Grays Harbor up 38-30, Grays Harbor’s trap defense paid dividends

Hines scored on a wide-open layup after getting behind the defense and was followed by a two consecutive Highline turnovers as the Thunderbirds struggled against the Chokers’ pressure, leading to Sampson hitting on 2-of-4 free throws with less than 30 seconds left to give Grays Harbor a comfortable 42-30 lead at the half.

Highline (15-13, 7-7) opened the second half with two consecutive buckets to cut the lead to 42-37 and force a quick Grays Harbor timeout.

Then Sampson caught fire. The sophomore made the most of his Sophomore Night experience, scoring six straight points on a baseline drive, a jump shot, and a steal-layup to put the Chokers back up by double-digits at 48-37 with 18 minutes remaining.

Grays Harbor kept Highline at an arm’s distance for much of the second half, holding an 8-12 point lead over the next 10 minutes of game time. It wasn’t until Highline’s Griffin Gardoski hit a three to cut Grays Harbor’s lead to 73-67 with just over seven minutes left that things got dicey.

Grays Harbor sophmore Zyare Ruffin is fouled by Highline’s Nathan Yockey (1) during the first half of Wednesday’s game at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen. (Ryan Sparks | Grays Harbor News Group)

Grays Harbor sophmore Zyare Ruffin is fouled by Highline’s Nathan Yockey (1) during the first half of Wednesday’s game at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen. (Ryan Sparks | Grays Harbor News Group)

But the Chokers were not going to wilt on this night. Marrotte responded with a three on the next possession followed by two free throws from Hines and a jumper from Genuine Powell that put Grays Harbor up by 13 at 80-67.

The Chokers continued to make plays down the stretch to pick up the clutch 91-74 victory and earn the No. 4 spot out of the NWAC West Region.

The inspired play wasn’t just due to having a tournament berth at stake and it being Sophomore Night. According to Vargas, the Chokers had some help from some bulletin-board material.

“The NWACHoops Twitter feed, they predicted us to get run out the gym by Highline,” he said. “I showed my players that tweet before the game and they said, ‘Nah.’ They smacked their lips and their nostrils flared.”

Vargas added he was more than willing to use the extra motivation.

“Shoot I hope for the rest of my life they predict we lose because right now we are 3-0 against their predictions,” he said.

Sampson led a Grays Harbor team that had five players score in double figures and broke the 90-point barrier for the first time since beating Green River on Jan. 15. Sampson scored 25 points —including a rim-rocking dunk in the second half that brought the capacity crowd to its feet —and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the Chokers.

Schoepf scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting and had five steals for Grays Harbor while Marrotte (15 points, 6 assists), Powell (14 pts., 9 asst.) and Hines (12 pts.) also scored in double figures.

The Chokers shot 56.7% from the field as a team on 34-of-60 shooting while holding the Thunderbirds to 46.4% (26-56) from the field.

Grays Harbor also held a distinct advantage in the paint, outscoring Highline 20-8 down low.

After a landmark win for the Chokers, Vargas was elated with the play of his players in a critical game.

“I just can’t say enough about how they played. … They just did a great job and I’m so proud of them,” he said before turning his attention to what a tournament berth can do for a program that has had a rough go of it over the previous decade-plus. “

“I think some kids around the state will open their eyes. … If you come here, you are somebody. You matter. You are going to get coached up and you can win here and be successful. … We’re working hard, we’re winning and we’re succeeding. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Highline 32 42 — 74

Grays Harbor 42 49 — 91

WOMEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Highline 75, Grays Harbor 30

Grays Harbor’s women’s basketball team closed out a winless season with a 75-30 loss to Highline on Wednesday in Aberdeen.

Armonnie Byrd closed out her Grays Harbor career scoring 15 points with nine rebounds and six steals on Sophomore Night.

Fellow Chokers sophomore scored five points and had six rebounds for the Chokers (0-17, 0-13 NWAC West).

Highline 19 16 16 24 — 75

Grays Harbor 2 10 7 11 — 30