Celt Devon Dunagan, whose late-game play proved pivotal against West Salem, pushes the ball up the court in the game Tuesday, Jan. 13. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Celt Devon Dunagan, whose late-game play proved pivotal against West Salem, pushes the ball up the court in the game Tuesday, Jan. 13. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The McNary High School boys varsity basketball team didn’t get much time to adjust to having a mark on its back.

Celtic players and coaches knew that competing with West Salem High School Tuesday, Jan. 13, was going to be a tall order. Man-for-man, the Titans are one of the tallest teams in the Greater Valley Conference and they used it to great effect against the Celtics. McNary won 50-44, but trailed the Titans from the second minute to the 27th minute.

“When you play a big team like that rebounds are tougher and the shots are contested a lot more,” said Tregg Peterson, a McNary senior.

Celt junior Trent Van Cleave put McNary on the board first with a point from the free throw line, but it was the last lead McNary would enjoy until the fourth quarter.

West kept their defenders bunched up under the net creating pressure for the Celtics when handling the ball and bad looks on the shots McNary players managed to get off. When the Celtics managed to grab a rebound around 6-foot-11 Titan Christian Russell, West destroyed their press.

The Titans ended the first frame with a 10-point lead. The second period didn’t get much better for McNary. The Keizer team edged its way back into the fray cutting West’s lead to four points on a bucket and free throw by Peterson, but the teams went to the half 26-20. Only a buzzer-beater by Trent Van Cleave closed the gap that much.

“We had struggles with their height. I actually think we could have had a better game plan going into the game, but that’s not to take anything away from West Salem as a team,” said Ryan Kirch, McNary head coach.

The Celts still trailed by three points going into the fourth period, but a basket by senior Devon Dunagan with 4:41 left put the score at 38-37. Dunagan drew a foul on the attempt and knocked down both shots from the free throw line to put McNary in the lead.

From that point on, the Celts didn’t relinquish the lead. Peterson made two key defensive plays to put the ball back in Celtic hands in the final two minutes and McNary escaped with a 50-44 win.

Dunagan led McNary scoring with 13 points, most of those coming in the final minutes. Mathew Ismay, Peterson and Van Cleave had nine points apiece; Cade Goff put in six; and Harry Cavell had four.

“Once we got into the 1-3-1 (zone defense), we were able to slow the game down. When we face them again, we have to do more of that in the game and just try to outrun the big guys,” Peterson said.

Van Cleave said big teams can put the emphasis on some of McNary’s strengths despite the challenges.

“It means we have to get out in the open court and take advantage of our speed and athleticism,” he said.

The McNary boys were put to the test again Friday, Jan. 16, in a game vs. McKay High School.

“They had a good game plan and came out and played hard to take advantage of the weak spots in our defense,” Van Cleave said.

McKay turned up the heat quickly keeping the Celts within two points, 10-8, at the end of the first frame. The Celts extended their lead to seven points by halftime, but Peterson said the team adjusted its attitude in the second half.

“We knew that they would come out and thinking they were in the game and we had to come back out and hit them hard,” he said.

McNary outscored McKay 23-14 in the third quarter and 12-5 in the fourth.

“Early on, (McKay) would get a big pop from the crowd each time they hit a basket, but our defense was consistent throughout the game,” Kirch said. “We stayed composed and guarded which lets us sustain through the ups and downs of other teams.”

Peterson led Celtic scoring with 18 points; Cavell, Dunagan and Van Cleave had 12 points each; Ismay and Cole Thomas had two apiece; and Goff and Wyatt Grine had one point each.

Peterson and Van Cleave identified the team’s game starts as the area that needs the bulk of their attention.

“We’ve had a couple of good starts, but not lately, we need to come out of the locker room and fly around,” Van Cleave said.

Peterson added, “We want to be the best team in the league and we have to play like it.”