Nate Meithof drives past a South Salem defender on Friday, Feb. 28 (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).
What started as a competitive ballgame got out of hand on the scoreboard in the second half.
McNary had the score within six early in the third quarter, but second-ranked South Salem outscored the Celtics 38-11 in the last 13 minutes of the game to earn the 83-50 victory in the regular season finale on Friday Feb. 29.
Nate Meithof led the Celtics with 18 points and Jando Gonzalez added 11, but McNary had no answer for South Salem’s Trey Galbraith, who lit up the gym for 39 points and set the Saxons new school record for 3-pointers in a game (10).
Gonzalez, a freshman, talked about the challenge of guarding a 19-year old senior in Galbraith.
“It was a tough. He had a lot of combo moves and he was just shooting from everywhere. It was a challenge, but I believe that this experience will help me grow as a player,” Gonzalez said.
After losing their top player from last season in Jaden Nielsen-Skinner, the Saxons reloaded with six incoming transfers to easily win the Mountain Valley Conference with a 14-0 league record — only three of their league games were within single-digits.
McNary gained the upper hand early in the opening quarter thanks to a triple from Gonzalez and back-to-back hoops from Tyler O’Connor.
A floater from Meithof and a bucket in the post from O’Connor put McNary on top 11-8, but the Saxons went on a 12-0 run to take a nine-point lead. The Celtics, however, were able to score the last five points of the quarter to cut the lead to four.
“We were playing more like a team on both sides of the court,” Meithof said. “We had really good ball movement.”
A trio of McNary turnovers led to some easy baskets for the Saxons. But after trailing by double-digits early in the second quarter, the Celtics fought back.
A baseline triple and a nifty lefty floater from Gonzalez trimmed the deficit to 32-26. Meithof and Gunner Smedema each hit jumpers before the end of the half, but South Salem still went to the break with a 40-32 advantage.
Despite the deficit, McNary head coach Ryan Kirch was quite pleased with the first half effort he saw from his squad.
“I thought we did an unbelievable job in the first half. They hit a couple of deep threes and we had a couple turnovers in the backcourt, but I thought we executed our game plan well and our kids played hard,” Kirch said.
The two teams traded hoops to begin the third quarter. A put-back bucket from Riley Flores had the Celtics within five at 42-37.
But South Salem turned up the intensity on defense, which led to them getting open shots on the other end. The Saxons scored the next 12 points and ended the period on a 19-9 run to go up 61-46.
“We came out a little slow after half and we just lost the momentum,” Gonzalez said.
The Saxons increased the lead to 18 in the early stages in the fourth quarter. With the game being out of hand, Kirch elected to pull his starters.
But even with a large lead, South Salem head coach Travis Brown kept his starters in the game and continued to go with a full-court press against the McNary reserves for the remainder of the contest.
“We were a little tentative in some areas and had a hard time dealing with their pressure. Once the lead got to 18, we chose to pull our starters and they continued to press with their starters. We had some guys in that don’t have a lot of experience and that definitely led to some things late,” Kirch said.
Galbraith nailed his 10th 3-pointer of the game with less than two minutes remaining to put the Saxons up by 30, then shimmied in front of the McNary bench while being mobbed by his teammates in celebration.
After being projected to finish sixth in the MVC by The Oregonian, McNary placed third in the conference standings with a 16-8 overall record and a 9-5 record in league play — both are one-win improvements from last year.
Kirch shared on how McNary strong culture helped them surpass expectations this season.
“I’m really proud to be the head coach at McNary High School and I’m proud to coach in a community that supports their school. I’m proud that our players grow up as friends and how they play together at our elementary schools and they grow up wanting to play at McNary. And I think that culture goes a long way. X’s and O’s are important, but we work to build and protect our culture so much,” Kirch said. “We want to build our program based on character. We do it a certain way and other programs may do it others, but we’re proud of the fact that we’re all Keizer kids. I’m proud of who we are, but maybe more importantly, I’m proud of who we are not.”