McNary post Boston Smith (30) beats South Salem’s Trey Galbraith off the dribble and looks to score. (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings)
Back on Jan. 31, the McNary boys basketball pulled off the upset of the year in the Mountain Valley Conference, knocking off second-ranked South Salem 59-57 — giving the Saxons their only league defeat of the year.
However, the Celtics couldn’t recreate the magic on senior night.
Boston Smith led all scorers with 23 points and Nate Meithof added 19 points, but it wasn’t enough as McNary fell to South Salem in the regular season finale 61-58.
“We have a great rivalry with South. You have the mindset that you hate each other, but you have a lot of respect for one another. At the end of the night, they just had more points than us,” McNary head coach Ryan Kirch said. “But I was so proud of how hard our guys played.”
One of the things that makes the Saxons so difficult to play against is their swarming defensive pressure.
The Celtics were reminded of that right as the ball was tipped.
McNary turned the ball over three times in the first two minutes of the game, allowing South Salem to start the contest on a 7-0 run.
But Meithof got the Celtic offense going by knocking down a pair of triples to cut the lead to one.
Even though McNary took a 12-11 advantage into the second period after Alfredo Villareal found Smith for an easy layup, the game still felt like it was being played at the Saxons pace.
“(South) is phenomenal at controlling the tempo of the game. They’re so quick and so conditioned. They never stop,” Kirch said. “They mix up their pressure at different spots. I thought in the first half we were a little tentative with attacking their press.”
Midway through the second quarter, McNary scored five straight points on made fouls shots from Smith and Meithof to take a 21-18 lead. But later in the period, the turnover bug bit the Celtics once again.
McNary gave the ball away on three consecutive possessions, and the Saxons took advantage by scoring nine straight points to take a 27-21 lead.
After Smith made one of two free throws, Villareal knocked down a beautiful runner before the halftime horn sounded to give the Celtics a little bit of momentum heading into the locker room.
But despite being in striking distance for the remainder of the contest, McNary could never quite get over the hump.
The Saxons took their largest lead of the game late in the third period when Trey Galbraith nailed a deep triple to put South on top 40-31.
McNary went on a mini rally with an 8-2 run to end the period thanks to a pair of buckets from Noah Hudkins. But Portland State-signee Jaden Nielsen-Skinner converted back-to-back impressive finishes at the rim to push South’s lead up to 46-39 in the early stages of the fourth quarter.
“I always felt like we were right there, but (Nielsen-Skinner) is so darn tough,” Kirch said. “He can get into that paint and score, and he gets a lot of assists inside. He’s a heck of a player.”
Still, McNary refused to say die.
A highlight-reel jam by Smith and a banked-in trey from Devyn Schurr got the Celtics within two at 56-54.
But after Trayden Harris hit a pair of free throws for South, Schurr was called for a costly traveling violation with 46 seconds left, forcing McNary to give the ball back to the Saxons.
However, with less than five ticks remaining on the clock, the Celtics still had a shot.
Villareal converted an uncontested layup with 3.3 seconds left to cut South’s lead to 60-58, then immediately fouled Nielsen-Skinner as the Saxons inbounded the ball.
Nielsen-Skinner made the first shot, but missed the second, giving the Celtics time to get off a desperation heave to try and force overtime.
Smith came down with the rebound and threw an outlet pass to Griffin Oliveira, who got off a half-court prayer just before the buzzer.
The shot was on line, but hit the backboard and front-rim before falling back down to the hardwood.
Griffin Oliveira (22) gets set to defend South Salem’s star point guard Jaden Nielsen-Skinner (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings)