First-year Taft High boys basketball coach Andy Morgan was well aware his team’s toughest test of the young season awaited when it stepped up in class Friday night on the road at Tillamook.
So the upstart Tigers showed the Cheesemakers they don’t know jack.
Class 3A Taft of the newly founded Coastal Range League upset Class 4A Tillamook of the long-established Cowapa Conference 60-53 despite a depleted rotation that lacked its leading scorer and with three JV players who were eligible to play only one quarter each on the bench.
“As a young team, our expectation is to learn during the month of December, and, hopefully, be very competitive in January,” Morgan said of his new-look Tigers, who stand just 10 points away from being undefeated following a 2-2 start.
The Tigers exploded on a 22-8 second-quarter scoring barrage after trailing 21-9 after the opening period for a 31-29 halftime lead, then stretched the lead by a basket in both the third and fourth quarters to depart dairy farm country with a .500 record.
Senior Tyee Fisher led Taft with team highs in rebounds and blocks and junior Eli DeMello paced the Tigers in steals as Taft took the fourth-quarter lead for the fourth time this season.
“There have been some conditions that have led us to stay with our plan to grow and learn rather than win at all costs,” Morgan said. “I am not saying we definitely would have won all the games, but I do believe we have been committed to the process of team growth rather than wins during the preseason.”
With senior starting post player Ray Darrington benched due to academic issues by a last-minute coach’s decision, Taft used the 6-foot-9-inch center’s pregame talk as motivation to get maximum minutes and a disciplined group effort on both ends of the court, Morgan said.
“We discussed the importance of playing fundamental defense and keeping our feet in position and on the ground,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t get into early foul trouble while keeping aggressive on-ball and from the help-side defense.”
With starting junior guard Lucas Hindman inexplicably caught hesitating on a few early possessions that led to a 12-point first-quarter deficit, Morgan said he turned to senior Clay Nelson to help combat Tillamook’s potent shooting.
“It was a blow to the team’s defensive plan to send Lucas to an early breather.” he said. “Lucas is known for his sharpshooting, and is probably one of the smartest basketball minds on the team. He has ability to score from anywhere around the arc. [We] have recognized Lucas’s ability to be a very strong one-on-one defender. He is long, quick and has a huge heart. You won’t get more effort out of any other player.”
The Tigers shifted to a 2-3 zone, made some other minor defensive adjustments and used “the hustle and heart we talked about pre-game” to turn the tables into a two-point halftime advantage, Morgan said.
Hustle and defensive intensity throughout the second half allowed Taft to hold Tillamook at bay with junior guard Trenton Fisher leading the way. “Little Fish,” as Tyee’s younger cousin is known among teammates, was able to increase his offensive presence and limit his turnovers while playing nearly the entire game.
“By far Trenton’s best performance,” Morgan said. “He was able to stay aggressive on the defensive end while he found himself matched up against formidable athletes.”
Partnering with the younger Fisher in the ball-handling duties was DeMello, who had numerous key steals, Morgan said.
“Eli was also potent, sinking three shots from deep, adding to the layups from his steals,” he said.
Taft, which forced 23 turnovers while committing 17, overcame the fourth-quarter jitters that have twice proved the team’s undoing this season.
“Tyee Fisher was not going to let his teammates give up,” Morgan said of the senior post player, who had six blocks, two steals, two assists and 12 rebounds in Darrington’s absence. “The inspired team leader played a dominant game as the team’s sole big man.”
With Tillamook making a charge to tie the game midway through the final quarter, the Tigers seized command by turning to junior point guard Jordan Hall, who made 14 of 17 foul shots.
“It was Hall that changed the outcome with his aggressive play at the rim,” Morgan said. “He continued to attack the paint off the dribble. The team knew the challenges of a fast-paced game with a short roster. Hall recognized the benefit of the free throws.
“It did wonders to calm the heart rate and the breathing. The atmosphere is always electric in the Cheesemakers’ gym. The fans are rowdy and the band is loud. The pressure of the situation didn’t steal the moment.”
Morgan said assistant varsity and head JV coach Kyle Hamlin then stepped in to help the Tigers halt the comeback.
“A timeout by the Tillamook coach allowed a 60-second rally cry by Coach Hamlin,” he said. “The team responds well to his unique understanding of competition, teaching the boys to be calm and confident. As the clock ticked, it became more apparent that this Tiger team is becoming a strong, trusting fraternity.”
Taft will have 10 days off to regroup from the emotional victory before returning to the court Monday, Dec. 17, for its league and home opener against Warrenton.