ASHLAND — Troy McNichols stood in the hall outside McNeal Pavilion and tried to explain the ramifications of Tuesday's game.

ASHLAND — Troy McNichols stood in the hall outside McNeal Pavilion and tried to explain the ramifications of Tuesday's game.

"Our goal is to win league," the Crater head coach said, "and you have to go through Ashland to do that."

Not anymore.

Backcourt mates Josh Lokeno and Travis Robbins combined to score 18 points in the fourth quarter as the Crater Comets took a major step toward a possible SSC title with a 61-46 runaway victory over Ashland on Tuesday.

Lokeno scored 11 of his game-high 18 points in the fourth and Robbins added 16 for the Comets (13-4, 5-1 SSC), who reached the halfway point of conference play with a slim lead over second-place Mazama (12-4, 4-1) in the league standings.

The Comets' third-straight win also clinched a head-to-head series victory over Ashland, which let a fourth-quarter lead slip away in Central Point on Jan. 9.

Ashland (10-8, 3-2), which entered the game on a three-game winning streak of its own, drops into third place in the league standings with seven games to go.

The two teams will meet again Feb. 13 at Crater.

"We want to get to Mac Court (site of the state tournament), so it was a huge game," McNichols said. "I don't know if our guys were nervous or not — if they were they sure did a good job of hiding it. But I think that we have kids on our team that rise to the occasion in these kinds of situations."

Crater rode a strong defensive effort to a 25-20 halftime lead and extended that cushion to nine points on Sam Clark's 35-foot bomb at the third-quarter buzzer.

Lokeno and backcourt mate Travis Robbins took over from there, combining to score 16 straight points for the Comets. At first, Ashland battled that two-headed monster to a virtual draw — Ian Kendall's rebound follow pulled the Grizzlies to within 49-41 with 3:25 to go. But Robbins answered with a three-point play, sparking a 12-3 Crater run that buried the Grizzlies.

"They came out to play, and they've beat us twice, so we obviously don't match up with them well," said Ashland senior post Talon Haggard, who was held to eight points.

Lokeno, who hit 7 of 15 shots, also added 10 rebounds and three steals in a dominating all-around performance. Robbins was just as good, adding a game-high 13 boards to go with four steals and four assists.

Ashland got 12 points out of Jamie Amrhein and 11 from Garrett Tygerson, but struggled mightily from the field — the Grizzlies hit just 17 of 46 shots, including 0-of-12 shooting from long range — and was outrebounded 37-30.

"Every time we play Crater, we don't play our game," said Ashland senior guard Charlie Sebrell, who was held to six points. "It just seems like they take away what we do good, and we have trouble playing defense against them. We just didn't play our game and we had a tough night shooting."

Playing in front of a packed house at the college gym, both teams seemed to feed off a crackling big-game atmosphere. The result was a fast-paced, if not high-scoring first quarter, during which Ashland took its only lead of the game, 8-7, on two Amrhein free throws with five minutes to go. The Comets scored 10 of the next 12 points, including four by Josh Dalton. The junior forward finished with nine points, seven rebounds, three steals and three blocks.

Ashland stayed within striking distance over the next 2 1/2; quarters, cutting the lead to a single point twice, but could never get over the hump.

Lokeno and Robbins were mostly to blame. Playing against an Ashland defense desperate for stops in the fourth quarter, the two seniors chewed up clock and held the Grizzlies at bay with clutch shot after clutch shot.

The biggest?

Lokeno nailed a 3 to give Crater a 45-35 lead with 6:27 left, drove for a hoop on Crater's next possession then scored on a rebound put-back to make it seven crucial points in less than 2 1/2; minutes.

"I decided to take it to the hoop in the second half," Lokeno said, "and it worked out for us."

CRATER (61) — Lee 3, Robbins 16, Clark 7, Lokeno 18, Dalton 9, Reed 2, Hicks 6. Totals: 22-44 14-18 61.

ASHLAND (46) — Sebrell 6, Kendall 4, Pavlich 3, Tygerson 11, Amrhein 12, Hansen 2, Haggard 8. Totals: 17-46 12-16 46.

Crater 17 8 15 21 — 61

Ashland 10 10 11 15 — 46

3-point goals — Crater 3 (Lee 1, Clark 1, Lokeno 1), Ashland 0. Fouled out — none.

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456 ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com.