CENTRAL POINT — They can’t all be runaway slam dunks. Sometimes you’ve got to tie your sneakers a little tighter and grit out a boys basketball victory.
For a Crater squad that had played in only four games decided by single digits heading into the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs, there wasn’t a lot of experience to lean on as Hermiston pushed the Comets to the limit Friday night.
But in a white-knuckle scenario that saw the game hanging in the balance with 2½ minutes to play for a 5A state tournament berth, it was Crater that came up with all the big plays down the stretch to secure a 51-43 triumph over the visiting Bulldogs.
Senior Kiefer Edwards and sophomore Jayden Vranes supplied pivotal defensive plays, and senior Mason Vranes was 4-for-6 from the free-throw line inside the final minute to seal a hard-fought victory for the Comets (24-1).
“It was scary at times,” admitted Mason Vranes, who scored a game-high 19 points. “We knew they were good coming in because they were league champs but we didn’t think it would be that close. That was a real battle-test, which will set us up good for the next round.”
The fact that the elder Vranes could even make that statement has been a long time coming.
In a historic season that has already seen the Comets earn the program’s first conference title in 28 years, they won their first playoff game in nine years after what had been a five-year playoff drought prior to Friday.
“It’s been a while and it means a lot to make history here at Crater,” added Mason Vranes, “so we’re going to try and do something with it.”
Second-seeded Crater will begin its quest in the state quarterfinals at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday in Corvallis against the winner of today’s playoff matchup between No. 7 South Albany and No. 10 Summit. The Comets last earned a state trophy when they placed sixth at the 5A level in 2009.
“I’m just excited that this group of seniors will get to experience Gill Coliseum,” said Crater head coach Chris Schmerbach. “Now it’s one game at a time and kind of the same thing, you try to survive and move on. I think we have just as good of a shot as anyone.”
That shot looked much more secure in the first half as Crater built a 19-9 lead on 15th-seeded Hermiston (12-12) and carried a 37-28 edge into halftime.
But in the second half, points were few and far between and it ultimately came down to a battle of wills with the Comets holding a 45-43 advantage with 2:35 to play.
Edwards started the ball rolling by leaping high in the air for a blocked shot on a driving effort by Hermiston’s Ryne Andreason, who led his team with 10 points and eight rebounds. The Bulldogs regained the loose ball but, after a timeout, a 3-pointer by Cole Smith missed the mark and junior Nate Horton tracked down the rebound for Crater.
Shortly thereafter, Mason Vranes made one free throw with one minute to play after the Comets were able to work about 50 seconds off the clock. That 46-43 lead still seemed tenuous given Hermiston’s effective 3-point shooting but Jayden Vranes didn’t let it get that far as he jumped into a passing lane and came up with the biggest play of the game with a steal and layup to give his team plenty of breathing room with 36 seconds to go.
“I was waiting for one of those all night,” said Jayden Vranes, who finished with seven points, four rebounds and four assists. “I was waiting for just the right time to actually commit to it and it ended up being the right time and a huge play that closed the game off.”
Another Hermiston turnover led to two more free throws by Mason Vranes and he later tacked on one more as the Bulldogs wound up going 0-for-3 from the field with three turnovers in the final 2½ minutes.
“You’ve got to take care of the ball in the fourth quarter and we had some mistakes,” said Hermiston head coach Casey Arstein. “That’s how it goes.”
“I’m not disappointed in the effort at all,” he added. “It’s going to be a long drive back but we had our chances. It wasn’t like we didn’t have opportunities.”
Coming off a bout with the flu, Edwards scored eight of his 10 points in the first quarter to go with six rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Freshman Nathan Bittle had nine points and three blocks, while senior Cade Weaver hit a pair of momentum-building 3-pointers in the second quarter to go with two steals.
“Looking back on it we can use this as something that’s going to help us,” said Schmerbach. “You’ve got to be able to grit out tough, close wins and I’m just proud that we did some things down the stretch that we haven’t done this year. Jayden made a big play there at the end, Mason hit some big free throws, Kiefer had a big block.”
“It’s just kind of ironic that the thing that’s been our thing all year — defense — is the thing that led us tonight,” added the coach. “We were just able to get stops when it mattered and that was all we needed to do.”
HERMISTON (43): Andreason 10, Earl 9, Smith 3, James 0, Wicks 0, Mendez 5, Ramirez 6, McCullough 1, Ortiz 9. Totals: 16-41 5-6 43.
CRATER (51): J. Vranes 7, Horton 0, M. Vranes 19, Ki. Edwards 10, Weaver 6, Stollings 0, Bittle 9. Totals: 17-45 9-17 51.
3-point goals — Hermiston 6-17 (Ortiz 3, Earl 1, Smith 1, Mendez 1), Crater 8-28 (M. Vranes 3, Weaver 2, Bittle 2, J. Vranes 1).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry