For the better part of a close first half, the Willapa Valley Vikings had no answer for Sunset Christian scorers Cole Wagenaar and Justin Van Wieringen.
That all changed in the second half.
The Vikings coaching staff changed up its strategy and the Willapa Valley players executed the plan to perfection to earn a 65-59 victory in a 1B Regional game on Saturday at WF West High School in Chehalis.
Running mostly a 2-3 zone in the first half, the Vikings (20-4 overall) struggled to slow the Knights’ scoring threats. Wagenaar and Van Wieringen combined for 17 points in the first half, often on points in the paint by beating double teams..
Locked in a 26-26 tie with just under two minutes left in the half, Willapa Valley took a 31-26 lead thanks to junior forward Wil Clements, who scored consecutive baskets on a 3-pointer followed by a score down low off a feed from center Grady Christen.
Leading by a slim 31-29 margin at halftime, Vikings head coach Jay Pearson listened to the advice of his coaching staff, namely his assistant coach and brother Jon Pearson.
“It was my brother’s call,” Jay Pearson said. “We knew they were great players coming in. … Their penetration and dish in the first half was killing us. … My brother gave me the defense: Triangle and 2. We dared the other guys to shoot and make them beat us.”
Pearson tasked Clements with shadowing Wagenaar — who had 11 points in the first half — while assigning guard Tyler Adkins the responsibility of sticking to Van Wieringen to limit touches in the second half.
The strategy worked as Wagenaar was forced further away from the basket, making additional points more difficult to come by, while Van Wieringen was held scoreless over the final 16 minutes of the game.
“That was our game plan. My responsibility was to take (Wagenaar) and not let him touch the ball,” Clements said. “(The plan) did well. That’s what we wanted to happen.”
The game remained close through much of the third quarter until a three from guard Riley Pearson put the Vikings up 46-36 with 1:56 to go in the period.
The wiry junior sharpshooter would strike again in the fourth quarter, giving Willapa Valley its first double-digit lead on a layup followed by another shot from beyond the arc, putting the Vikings up 53-41 with 5:34 left in the game.
Christen would give Willapa Valley what appeared to be a comfortable lead when he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to stake the Vikings to a 62-51 lead with 1:18 in the game.
But a last-ditch effort by the Knights (17-6) saw them pull to within a bucket at 62-59 on a Wagenaar jump shot with 26 seconds left.
Willapa Valley guard Kolten Fluke hit 1-of-2 free throws followed by Riley Pearson converting two from the foul line over the final 15 seconds to secure the 65-59 victory.
Riley Pearson — who didn’t score in last weekend’s district-title winning victory over Naselle — led the Vikings with 18 points, including 4-for-8 from 3-point range.
“It’s someone different almost every game,” Coach Jay Pearson said of his team’s depth, which included double-digit scoring from Clements (15 points) and senior Gavin Hampton (13 pts.). “It’s beautiful.”
One of the many Vikings that stepped up to make unselfish plays on Saturday was Christen, who scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds and went 4-for-5 from the free-throw line down the stretch.
But what may be more important was Christen’s ability to read the floor and facilitate the offense for his teammates, another change in strategy the head coach was willing to listen to.
“Grady is a very smart kid,” Jay Pearson said. “He said during a timeout, ‘When I get in the high post, the opposite wing — cut. You’re wide open. Cut backdoor.’ He saw the floor very well, he passed well, he rebounded well and he shot well.”
“We all know our role and when it’s our time to play, we step up and play,” Clements said. “We all believe in each other.”
Willapa Valley hit 24-of-59 (41%) shots from the field, including 11-for-25 (44%) in the second half.
The Vikings had 37 rebounds (12 offensive) and turned the ball over just seven times in the ballgame.
The win puts the Vikings into the 1B State quarterfinals, where they await the winner of the No. 11 Naselle/No. 3 Northwest Yeshiva first-round game.
Tip-off is tentatively scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday at the Spokane Arena.
Having one less game to play in the four-day tournament is incredibly beneficial according to Coach Pearson.
“That’ll be huge at state, taking a day off,” he said, adding his team’s “legs were dead” toward the end of the last state-tournament berth in 2020. “It saves your legs.”
But on Saturday, the Vikings were a bit more focused on the moment at hand.
“It felt great,” Clements said of the victory. “We were all hootin’ and hollering. Everybody was happy.”
Sunset Christian 14 15 9 21 — 59
Willapa Valley 12 19 13 21 — 65
Sunset Christian (59) — Wagenaar 22, Bosma 17, Jech 9, Van Wieringen 6, DeBoer 3, Smeenk 2
Willapa Valley (65) — Pearson 18, Clements 15, Hampton 13, Christen 8, Adkins 7, D. Fluke 3, K. Fluke 1